While her best friend Laura (Pernell Walker) is out and proud, for Alike (Adepero Oduye) her homosexuality -- a secret to her parents but not really anybody else -- is also tinged with the unease of being a virgin. She desperately wants to find a girl to love but never feels quite at home enough at the lesbian bar she frequents with Laura to make her move. Adding to her inability to develop a relationship is her overbearing and ever watchful mother Audrey (Kim Wayans). Alike can never go in and out of the house without Audrey bombarding her with questions, complaints and advice, and while she's trying to spread her wings, they are clipped at every opportunity when she walks through the door. And though Audrey has her suspicions, she leaves the inquiry to her husband Arthur (Charles Parnell), a New York City police officer who is hardly ever at home. It's a smart play for someone who wishes to remain in denial about something she knows in her heart is true.
While the territory might be familiar "Pariah" is refreshing in its authentic feeling and Rees' refusal to go down similar paths other films have taken before. For one, the characters we meet in the movie come from a variety of economic backgrounds. Alike's family are middle-to-upper class, living in a beautiful brownstone, while Bina's folks might be a step lower, and Laura, living with her sister, occupies the bottom stair. Each of their situations add a texture, but moreover, present a much more full-bodied portrait of Alike's surroundings. In short, this is a New York story with all of that city's mix of people on different rungs of the ladder. And this extends to the cultural elements as well, as Rees takes viewers from the thumping, pulsating world of the lesbian club from the first half of the film, to a completely different indie rock scene later in the picture. Again, while the plot concerns a very specific arc and theme, Reese enlivens it with fully developed, realistic social settings that give the picture an almost documentary feel.
This is no after school special. "Pariah" closes on a bittersweet note and one that sees Alike transformed, slowly establishing herself in a community of those not just bound by sexual identity, but by shared pain and hope. Dee Rees finds both of those elements in "Pariah," a film with a universal sensitivity that relates the pangs of first love, the desirous ache of adolescent sexuality and the excitement of not just discovering yourself but finding those kindred spirits with whom you can share your life. [A-]
This is a reprint of our review from TIFF.