Dir. Dee Rees
(2011, R, 86 min)

Pariah hasn’t received as much attention as Precious did two years ago, though they have much in common, from their subjects – struggling black teens in New York’s inner city – to their tone, and even the support of prominent black entertainers: Precious was championed by Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, and Pariah is executive-produced by Spike Lee. Perhaps their similarities are precisely the reason it has flown under the radar, though I like this film slightly more than I liked Precious. It’s subtler and more life-size. In place of the monstrous physical and sexual abuse of Precious is a more recognizable parent-child dynamic, an uneasy stalemate built on silence and denial.

Alike (Adepero Oduye) is a seventeen-year-old girl who is more or less open about her lesbianism at school, where she is subject to gossip, though this isn’t a story about bullying. In fact, her education seems to be the most stable part of her life; she gets a high grade in a science class, which doesn’t seem to surprise her, and she takes an advanced-placement English class where her teacher looks forward to reading her new poems; unlike in Precious, where the teacher was a saintly savior, this character plays a smaller, more believable – yet still important – role in the protagonist’s life.

Her mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans) is quietly homophobic, trying to steer her daughter into feminine dress and church services. She disapproves of Alike’s very masculine best friend, Laura (Pernell Walker); she doesn’t say why she disapproves, but they all know why. Alike’s father, Arthur (Charles Parnell) is a police officer who doesn’t spend much time at home and is likely having an affair; he assumes his daughter is straight, and goes out of his way not to hear otherwise. It’s not a problem, you see, if he never asks and she never tells. What works about this family dynamic is that the parents are not played simply as bigots; writer-director Dee Rees allows them to be human even as they are cruel. Audrey, in particular, is shown as a lonely woman who feels isolated at work and stays awake nights waiting up for her daughter or husband, or both, half-believing they’ve left her for good.

The film follows a familiar dramatic arc, perhaps overly so; for instance, there’s a subplot involving Alike’s new friend Bina (Aasha Davis) that goes exactly where we think it’s going. But the writing and performances ring true, especially by Oduye and Wayans, who bring human dimension to opposite sides of the troubling homophobia that exists in the black community; sitting one or two rows behind me in the theater, a young black man, who seemed not to realize what movie he had come to see, said aloud, “I don’t need to watch this gay shit, I’m straight!” For an object lesson in irony, look no further.

 

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