Published Jan 12, 2012Coming-of-age tales are an irresistible temptation for new filmmakers. They provide an equal measure of verisimilitude and nostalgia, reaching back into the past with the wisdom of experience, resolving the problems that once seemed insurmountable, yet allowing a vicarious return to a less cynical age, free from the problems of modernity. Unfortunately, the genre has become so ubiquitous that their tropes stick out like ill-hammered nails. The uniqueness of personal experience manifests itself not in the why of what happens to you as you grow up, but how.
From novice filmmaker Dee Rees comes Pariah, an NYC set coming-of-age tale with a lesbian twist. Newcomer Adepero Oduye is Alike, a shy but gifted high-schooler who leads a double-life of sorts, hanging with her best friend, Laura, at a lady-friendly club and hastily hopping the bus home to make it in under curfew. Worried about Alike spending time with someone she sees as a bad influence, her straight-laced mother (a surprising turn by Kim Wayans) hooks her up with the slightly more innocuous Bina (Aasha Davis), which inadvertently leads to Alike's growing comfort with her sexuality.
A product of the Sundance Institute, the film follows the furrowed brow template of many of that festival's graduates, from its heavy-handed title to its straightforward, unchallenging narrative. Pariah is an "issues" film, concerned largely with its politics and message rather than its characters. That's a shame because there are many great little moments, often filtered through the expressive face of its lead, demonstrated by the quiet simplicity of the budding relationship between Alike and Bina.
Pariah still has battles to fight ― with people like Rick Santorum potentially becoming president and the Pope still insufferably saying Pope-like things, being gay in this world remains a challenge, and the sad fact is that it may always be so. In that light, Pariah is an admirable film that will reach the audience that identifies most strongly with Alike and her struggles.
But while progressive in its ideals, there's little that's progressive about its methods, which certainly precludes it from becoming the next great lesbian movie. Its target audience deserves better, but they won't get it unless they demand it. (Alliance)