Pariah Review

(2.5 STARS)

For just over an hour, Pariah ticks along solidly, but unspectacularly. A series of good-to-great performances elevate the film above its paint-by-numbers screenplay, but just before its dramatic climax, the plot machinations rear their ugly head and transform even the film’s most vivid characters into devices meant to take us from point A to point B. It’s a disappointing shift because Dee Rees‘ film, unlike so many films, actually has something worthwhile to say, as well as the passion necessary to make the message resonate. What transpires here, unfortunately, is unforgivably clumsy.

Alike (Adepero Oduye) is a 17-year-old young woman still discovering herself. She knows she’s a lesbian but isn’t nearly comfortable enough about it to act on an attraction to a female classmate, nevermind to come out to her parents. Her mother (Kim Wayans) is especially severe. She suspects Alike is, at the very least, questioning her sexuality, and she doesn’t like it one bit. She buys Alike feminine-looking clothing and implores her husband (Charles Parnell) to talk some sense into Alike (homosexuality, she’s quick to remind everyone, is a sin). She also forces Alike to spend time with a coworker’s daughter, Bina (Aasha Davis). Oops. Turns out Alike and Bina have a lot in common, including an attraction to the same sex. But having a “relationship” with Bina also means Alike is opening herself up to someone her age for the first time in her life.

Of course, digging too deeply into the plot’s fatal flaw would be unfair to those still wanting to give Pariah a shot. And you probably should. It’s a good effort from a 34-year-old, first-time feature filmmaker. And considering how close Rees is to the material (she’s called the film semi-autobiographical), flaws of this nature are to be expected. But Pariah‘s flaws are, for whatever reason, total momentum killers. And it’s not just one moment. The final third of the film is plagued by multiple drastic shifts in character and arcs that don’t deliver on what’s promised.

At least the actors click. And they should, considering many of them worked together on Rees’ 2007 short film upon which Pariah is based. Oduye is the standout. Her Alike is book smart but very naive in the ways of the world. She’s also quite endearing despite being an introvert at heart. Perhaps its her slow acceptance of who she is that connects because that journey is a universal one. Gay or straight, everyone needs to learn to feel comfortable in his or her own skin. It’s just that the path Alike travels contains far more speed bumps than most. Oduye’s graceful way of navigating them, however, is one of the film’s highlights.

Aasha Davis (who is, no joke, almost 40 years old but plays a high schooler) is also mostly exceptional as Bina. She’s something of an enigma to both us and Alike, but both the character and the actress are radiant and charming. Kim Wayans has a very different role. Where Bina was a free spirit, Alike’s mother, Audrey, pulls her hair up tight and doesn’t give either of her daughters an inch. She longs for affection from her disinterested husband, yet she doesn’t show any to her daughters in return. She’s the kind of character you might expect to have a redemptive moment at some point over the course of the film, but it just doesn’t happen. That’s fine, and it’s worked plenty in the past, but it doesn’t here. Despite being played quite well by Wayans, the character is static and the simplest type of antagonist.

Rees at least stylizes her film in such a way that it at least leaves an impact on a purely visual level. Pariah is very colorful, though Rees opts to saturate the film with cool hues. Extreme close-ups signal moments of intense emotion, while the camera’s generally shaky movements intensify (or at least attempt to) our identification with Alike.

Unfortunately, the film never really stands much of a chance. Coming through such a problematic third act still shining is not an easy task, and though Pariah has its moments, it’s sunk by the very material meant to hit hardest.

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