It also goes a bit deeper into the hearts and minds of the homophobic parents than typically is done, which was great. Unfortunately, it only scratches those surfaces. Kim Wayans, who of course has a long history in comedy, shows she has major dramatic talent, playing the homophobic mother of the main character. The cast is universally good, but Wayans is the stand-out.
The main character is a black teenage girl in Brooklyn going through the coming-out process. She has fully come out to herself as a lesbian, and she has even found her way into a lesbian circle of friends. She even frequents a women's night club. But she hasn't told Mom or Dad about any of this, both of whom are homophobic. Mom is particularly venomous in her hatred of gays and lesbians. You can see that Dad, a detective in the NYPD, in his heart of hearts is not a bigot.
Thrown into the mix to complicate things a little bit is a bisexual girl eager to have lesbian experiences to explore herself. But she tosses lesbians aside like useless candy wrappers after she's had her fun.
If I were going to give Dee Rees advice, I would say this:
Ms. Rees, in "Pariah" you started digging into the parent characters with some real psychological and artistic depth. I encourage you to go more deeply in that direction. I think your true gifts as an artist lie there. I would give anything to see a sequel where you explore what happened to that mother and what she's really fighting. You hint that her husband is beginning to stray, but I think there's more in there. Help us see it.
Remember when that great schoolteacher tells Alike that she could "go deeper" with her poetry? You could go deeper with your films. I know you could.
Even though writer-director Dee Rees shows a lot of promise with her first feature "Pariah," it is also much too rough to fully pass muster with subplots going off in all directions and not enough experience to tie it all together. Alike is not only lesbian but also coming to terms with her gender identity, as she always appears to be changing clothes to and from home. That's not to mention the Misadventure of the Amazing Strap-On. Maybe in 1994, this all might have seemed fresh and enough to go on but not so much now. While many elements might ring true, others come off as cliche, such as Alike's poetry, and others just feel false. For example, no mother, much less a churchgoing one, would buy clothing for her teenage daughter that would 'accentuate her figure.' Feminine might be the word you are looking for.
I found myself caring very much for this cast of characters, mainly because of the refreshingly articulate way they expressed themselves. It's a breath of fresh air to see a so-called "urban" (hate that term) drama where the people in it seem to care about music, books, and each other.
If I had a complaint, it would be about the cinematography. Although there are beautiful images to be had here, the hand-held work felt annoying at times. Sometimes stillness, especially with a main character who lives so well in it, is the right way to go.
That aside, this could be the sleeper hit of 2011. A film with a beating heart and soul.
Okay, first off, if I could just go ahead and throw this out there: the soundtrack is absolutely horrible! There, now that I've gotten that out of the way and ensured myself an easy sleep tonight, the film is a very down-to-earth one, with carefully structured realism and a naturalistic atmosphere, which is great and all, except for the fact that real life is a bit boring, - even when it deals with situations as potent as the ones tackled in this film - or at least not exactly built to be a case of beginning, middle and end, thus this film is left with little narrative structure, as well as with little refreshingly cinematic spark to its realist actions, characterization and dialogue, and is left realistically limping along with little feel for progression, due to its being realistic to fault and to the point of being a bit bland. I suppose you get used to this structure reasonably quickly, and just enough to stick with the film, yet the fact of the matter is that the film gets to be a bit blandly carried away with its realism, leaving plot to suffer, though not as much as pacing, which further goes hurt by the film's being slow to begin with. Now, the film isn't necessarily dull, yet its atmosphere is dry and its pacing is steady to the point of being supplementary to the blandness that goes spawned from the film's over-realism, while additional damage to the pacing comes from repetition, because whether it be the film's keeping faithful to the reality of routine or just lazy writing, the film sometimes finds itself treading in circles. Still, with all of its repetition and limping along, one of the biggest problems with this film is its simply being just plain too short, clocking in at under 90 minutes and not taking quite enough time to fully flesh out its story and characters, let alone sell them firmly enough for the film to leave you with all that much of a thorough impression. As I'll touch upon later, what this film does do right with the limited time it has is sharply effective enough for the final product to leave an impression, yet even with that, this film still feels a bit too short, sweet and to the point, not quite putting enough time or effort into exposition, much less compensation for the film's plummets into blandness on the wings of slowness, limited narrative focus and altogether being realist to a fault, thus leaving the final product to run the risk of collapsing into underwhelmingness. Of course, that just makes this film's keeping consistent with its being engaging all the more impressive, for although the film and its methods are flawed, this film does more than enough with very little to satisfy, which is what you can say about the restrained yet rewarding work of cinematographer Bradford Young.
Being very much an independent project, the film finds its technical and artistic sharpness tainted by funds limitations, yet with what he has to work with, Bradford Young delivers on lovely photography, drawing from the picture much detail and definition, complimented by a beautifully bleak lighting and colorizing that, when emphasized at just the right moment, makes for some gorgeously gritty shots, which break up a consistent degree of handsomeness that can be found within the cinematography throughout the film. Young's photography reflects and supplements the effectiveness of the film's grimy thematic depths in a fashion that is both aesthetically and emotionally attractive, which helps the film in sustaining your attention, while Dee Rees secures your investment through her screenplay, alone, particularly when it comes to the very realism that also hurts this film. As I said, the film gets to be a bit lost in its time down to earth, where too much realism leaves blandness to set in and little in the way of narrative structure to rise, and in a situation like that, - where you're film is left a bit bland and with very little actual plot - you're going to need the compensation that this film provides, whether it be near-snapily clever yet down-to-earth dialogue, or simply the intrigue in beholding how much this script goes graced by much thorough attention to detail and authenticity, of which, there is enough for this film to back up its thematic intentions. The film is a portrait on the youth's pursuit for embracement of his or her inner being and true identity, or in this case, the very contemporaneously relevant story of a teenaged girl's struggles as an outgoing yet still afraid lesbian, and such a topic can be and has been portrayed with far too much broadness and simplification, and even as something of a gimmick, being that it is so contemporaneously relevant, yet this film transcends past those potential missteps and stands as effective in its portrayal of these worthy themes, being audaciously authentic, but restrained to where it's not so much bearing down on you with message, as much as it's simply telling an engrossing and provocative story. Dee Rees nearly undercuts her accomplishments with more than a few missteps that reflect her limited experience in filmmaking, yet the point is that she does make her share of accomplishments, and plenty of them, not just as writer, but as director, as she subtly but surely places her heart into this project, and forges the compelling characterization and engrossing emotional resonance that define this film as a moving and thought-provoking drama, which wouldn't be as effective as it is without the inspiration in both Dee Rees' efforts and certain performances. Kim Wayans isn't given much to do until the final act of the film, but when material does finally arrive, she delivers on unexpectedly potent emotional range and steals the show, while leading lady Adepero Oduye firmly owns the show, planting subtle yet striking emotion and depth into her very human and rather layered presence, to where she bonds with the Alike character and delivers an engaging lead performance that may not be written to have quite as much material as you would expect it to, but still helps in making this breakout for Oduye a promising one. The film stands to be stronger, and there's no getting around that, as the film's faults do indeed do some damage to be a seemingly light as they are, yet what we're ultimately with as a final product is a film that transcends its missteps and stands a consistently engaging, with moments in which truly resonantes, until it is ultimately left standing as worthwhile.
In conclusion, the film's over-attention to realism leaves narrative structure to take quite a bit of damage, sometimes almost to the point of dissipating, thus creating a kind of blandness, which goes intensified by slowness that is, in and of itself, intensified by repetition that pads this film out, though not quite far enough, as the final product comes out too short to flesh things out as much as it should, yet ultimately compensates for that through striking and tonally supplementary cinematography by Bradford Young, as well as by inspired and generally intriguingly authentic writing by Dee Rees, whose just as inspired directorial execution provides emotional resonance, amplified by the engrossing lead performance by Adepero Oduye that helps in making Dee Rees' "Pariah" a compelling and satisfying study on self-embracement in the face of uncertainty.
3/5 - Good