By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com
Sundance Review: Pariah
The most gut-wrenching-yet-uplifting film I’ve seen so far at Sundance this year so far is Pariah, which has been getting some mixed buzz. Yes, yes, I know that gut-wrenching-yet-uplifting is practically its own genre here at Sundance, but like many cliches there’s some truth in the stereotype. And Pariah is so moving, so remarkably acted by Kim Wayans as the controlling, miserable mother and Adepero Oduye as Alike, a Brooklyn teenager hiding her lesbianism from her conservative family, that it stands out from more mundane films that try but fail to capture the coming of age angle in an interesting way.
Alike is a bright student, a talented writer, the kind of young woman who could grow up to be a Serious Writer after she wins a scholarship to a great school and then gets into an MFA program at, say, Berkeley or NYU. But she’s a loner at school, disconnected from her peers by the butchness she displays there because she has to hide it at home.
Alike’s best friend Laura (Pernell Walker), an out dyke who takes Alike to a lesbian club and urges her to “get her cherry popped”, is supportive of Alike and accepts her for who she is, but she also hangs out with a rough crowd of drop outs and drug users, and their friendship could sidetrack Alike from her academic goals.
There’s a piece at Filmmaker Magazine where director Dee Rees talks about the brutal uphill battle fought to get Pariah off the ground at all because it was “too black and too gay.” So I have to say, while this film stars black actor and is about a gay teen, its themes are far more universal than that narrow definition would have it, and I consider it to be far more a coming of age tale than a “gay” story or a “black” story.
The comparisons to Precious are, unfortunately, inevitable, and I say “unfortunately” not because I don’t like that film — I liked it a great deal when I saw it at Sundance two years ago and I like it still today — but because the comparison assumes, first of all, that there can only be ONE successful film about an urban black girl struggling to find her voice, or ONE film in which a brave, smart teen is dealing with a difficult mother. And apart from having very vaguely similar themes in that respect and starring Black actresses with unusual names that white film journalists find hard to pronounce, the two films really have very little in common.
Where Precious is about a poor, urban Black girl who’s been beaten down and abused by her crazy welfare mother and the miserably unfortunate circumstances of a life of physical and sexual abuse, Pariah is about a middle class Black girl from a conservative family who’s had a good education and loving, albeit controlling, parents. Alike’s parents have a dreadful marriage that makes you wonder why they got married in the first place, and her mother’s refuge from her pain and loneliness are her Bible and her daughters, to whom she clings with a choking ferocity.
She senses that Alike is gay, but seems to think that if she just denies it enough and buys her daughter feminine clothes and finds her a nice Christian girl to hang out with, she can break her daughter out of her extended “tomboy” phase. And Kim Wayans is good, very good as Alike’s mother Audrey, but because the film is being so compared to Precious, and by extension to Mo’Nique’s terrific, terrifying turn as the monster-mom-from-hell, it’s also being underappreciated.
There’s a subtle sadness, a deep-rooted underlying sorrow at the heart of Audrey and Wayans nails it; the final scene between mother and daughter is as heart-breaking, in its way, as the revelatory scene at the end of Precious between Mo’Nique and Mariah Carey’s social worker.
And let’s talk about Ms. Oduye, shall we? I don’t know where this girl came from (actually, I can read about where she came from on her IMDb page, but so far as Sundance is concerned terrific young actresses drop right out of the sky and into their Sundance debut), but her performance as Alike is heartfelt, soulful, completely real and honest. The longing with which she watches the other girls at the club and at school, the fearful, yet defiant manner with which she clothes herself in her preferred dyke-wear, the barely tethered compliance to her clinging, overbearing mother, the subtleties of facial expression and body language with which she conveys Alike’s aching break away, and most of all the yearning with which her lips and eyes restrain the words that would speak the truth to her parents about who she really is … this is a simply splendid performance on every level.
And frankly, while I’m also enamored of the performances by Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene and Silent House, and by the incredibly charming Felicity Jones who lends shades of Carey Mulligan to the freshly sold Like Crazy, I’m rather shocked and dismayed that I’m not hearing people buzzing at the same level about Adepero Oduye, who, it cannot be denied, is terrific in this film.
You can love Pariah or think it’s “too Precious,” okay, but for pity’s sake, where the heck is the Sundance love for this young lady? Where’s the respect for young writer/director Dee Rees, a student/prodigy of Spike Lee, who’s made a feature debut here that’s as mature, nuanced and powerful as just about any feature debut you’re likely to see at this fest?
I believed in Push/Precious from the moment I saw it here, it’s a great film, but if I’m holding the two films up next to each other, I think Pariah is a stronger, better structured and executed film overall. If the audience ratings indicator on the Sundance site is an indicator (the film is currently sitting at 4 otu of 5 stars), audiences are responding to the film as strongly as Ms. Rees could hope. But what of the press and industry here? This film needs a champion — and apparently, Spike Lee exec producing the film isn’t enough — to make it pop. Sadly, in spite of just how liberal and open we think we all are, maybe Pariah is, after all, just a little too black, a little too gay, even for Sundance. And that’s a shame.