Sundance 2011 Review: PARIAH
As the film PARIAH unfolds, we find ourselves in the middle of the New York City club scene as loud music vibrates throughout the theater and we focus in on two teenage boys, somewhere they probably should not be. As the two wrap up their night and part ways, we realize that this is not a story about a boy possibly rebelling against his parents, but rather a story of a girltrying to figure out who she is. As Alike (Adepero Oduye) takes off her baseball hat and puts her earrings back in her ears, it is clear this is not the first time she has shifted from one world to the other.
In school, Alike continues her tomboy/ambiguous style and we see that she is also a poet as she works on her latest material over lunch with one of her teachers. Alike needs an outlet and it seems her writing is the way in which she finds his release. Although talented, her teacher advises her to continue to push herself and be as honest as she can through her work because that is when it will truly shine.
Back at home, Alike’s controlling mother Audrey (Kim Wayans) is desperately trying to put an end this “phase” her daughter is going through and make her more feminine like her younger sister Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse). Audrey is convinced a good talk from Alike’s father Arthur (Charles Parnell) and a change of friends will help Alike start growing into the young woman she wants (and prays for) her to be.
Alike’s best friend and main confidante, Laura (Pernell Walker), accepts Alike for who she is because she is the same way. Audrey thinks Laura is a bad influence and the reason Alike behaves and dresses the way she does and wants to remove Laura from Alike’s life. After being forcefully set up to start walking to school with the daughter of one of Audrey’s friends at church, Bina (Aasha Davis), Alike starts to realize that Bina may be able to open her eyes to more things than she first thought.
Forming a bond over their shared taste in music, Bina and Alike start spending actual time together and in doing so, Alike starts spending less time with Laura. The friendship and connection between Laura and Alike is clear, but at the same time Alike never quite seemed to fit in Laura’s world of clubbing and picking up girls. It seemed unclear whether Alike is simply attracted to Laura’s lifestyle or the girls as well, but when Bina and Alike’s friendship begins to show shades of something more, we see that we are watching Alike fall in love for the first time.
Through Bina, Alike starts to gain more confidence and feel more comfortable with herself and, naturally, wants to share her excitement with her best friend. However, Laura gives her quite the cold reception, upset over what she perceived was Alike ditching her for something better. After a poignant sleepover between Bina and Alike, Alike wakes up the happiest we have ever seen her, but Bina has some regrets. Brokenhearted, Alike is thrown into a tailspin that almost leaves her with nothing, except for Laura, whose support and love are unspoken and true. It is when Alike’s world begins to crumble around her that she is able stand up in the face of it and finally be honest with not only those in her life, but more importantly, herself.
As we delve into Alike’s world, which is meticulously painted by director Dee Rees, from the standout music selections to the infuriating control Audrey insists on lording over her daughter, we discover nuanced performances from each member of the talented cast. Nothing in Alike’s life is black or white and it is those precarious gray areas that Rees navigates so beautifully as we go on this journey. PARIAH is subtle in its effect and draws viewers in to the story rather than telling it to them.