A simple yet poignant and beautifully told coming of age story that isn’t overly reliant on the obvious Hollywood-style bells and whistles to announce mood and intent and also eschews the fog and mirror antics of many ambitious indie-style films. In Dee Rees' semi-autobiographical gem of a film, Pariah, prose, poetry, beautiful photography, music and believably authentic performances all collude to produce what seems like an effortless yet unobtrusively artful presentation of a universal tale told through the conduit of a marginalised milieu.
Alike (Adepero Oduye) is the product of a comfortably average middle-income family, she does well at school, tolerates her irritating little sister (Sahra Mellesse), hangs out with her somewhat wayward best friend, Laura, (Pernell Walker) but tries her best to live according to her parent’s rules and expectations, particularly the expectations of her overbearing mother (Kim Wayans). Ironically, it’s a mother knows best orchestration that leads Alike to her first sexual encounter with a girl from their church (Aasha Davis) – no mean feat, given that her best friend has been trying her damnedest to help find her the perfect one to pop her cherry – and it is this encounter that illuminates, rips apart and forces the jagged path to Alike’s self-assertion of who she is.
Trouble is, though they both want what they think is best for her, neither mother nor best friend take into account who Alike is. Alike is not, as her mother would like to think, just going through a tom-boy phase – yes, she likes to play basketball with her dad (Charles Parnell), as much as he likes shooting hoops with her; but neither is she the hyper-pseudo masculine butch who likes to play male chauvinistic stereotypes while wearing a strap-on dildo in her underpants to help exaggerate her swagger and keep her in touch with her masculine side.
And therein lays Alike’s teenage angst. It’s not just that she’s gay that’s her problem, it’s that she’s a sensitive soul, awkwardly coming into the awareness of her own uniqueness which is at odds with the prescribed cultures that are being presented to her by her mother and best friend, and the role choices laid out for her in those cultures – obedient, compliant and appropriately sexually acquiescent daughter (and eventual wife and mother) in a widely accepted “normal” mainstream culture; or overtly aggressive and sexually domineering chauvinist who’d make the average misogynist seem positively charming, in a subset of a sub-culture that seems like a parody of the worst that mainstream culture has to offer. And it’s not just that these two women want what they think is best for Alike, it’s more that they want to mould her in their own image, regardless of how their respective superficial images are working out for them themselves and, to this extent, they act like rivals for her loyalty and attention.
Mother has seemingly done everything right – married a handsome, hard-working man with whom she’s produced two beautiful children who do well at school, live at home with both parents and, by and large, follow the rules that will lead them to replicate the normal family lives for themselves one day. But it’s a life full of rigid rules and duty – duty which Alike’s father seems to be performing adequately with regard to his daughters (and with great emotional strength when it comes to his eldest daughter’s darkest hours of need), but which is harder to perform as husband. Duty is something that career and fatherhood require and while both, to some extent, contain an emotional element, duty in his capacity as an emotionally available husband isn’t something that can be so-easily role-played. For unconditional love, emotional intimacy and recognition as a person first, rather than a duty-bound role player, his marriage is not the place to be.
With the best friend, meanwhile, her hip-hop hyped macho swagger, even as she takes on the role of provider and protector of an incapacitated older sister, is something she puts on to mask her own emotional insecurities in the face of brutally overt rejection from a parent – a parent with views and attitudes that don’t seem too dissimilar to Alike’s mother’s. It’s through this maelstrom of overwhelming pressure and expectation that Alike has to navigate her way to her own truth, a way which is inevitably fraught with emotional vulnerability, pain, trauma and rejection, but a way through which she’ll have to successfully pass if she’s to avoid the traps and emotionally stifling corners that her mother and best friend have painted themselves into.
It seems rather clichéd to say that love will save the day, especially with regard to a film that manages to avoid tacky clichés and overly maudlin sentiment, but the kind of love that we all grapple with, the love that not only dares not speak its name but which society is hell bent on sequestering, pounding out of existence, drowning in judgement and then hanging out to dry, is one that has to win if Alike, like any of us, is to live a life that has any real meaning or chance of true freedom, peace and happiness. Self-love, and self-determination, no matter how hideous, odious or ridiculous others may want to make us feel, even if it means jeopardising the love of those closest to us, is really at the heart of Rees’ Pariah because, surely, as Alike’s mother says, and as Alike herself comes to realise, God does not make mistakes.
Public festival screenings take place at Vue, Leicester Square, on Friday 14th and Saturday 15th October. Visit the BFI London Film Festival website for further information and ticket availability.