‘Pariah’: Heartfelt story of liberation | 3 stars
By LOEY LOCKERBY
Special to The Star
Rated R | Time: 1:26
“I’m not running. I’m choosing.”
That statement of liberation comes late in Pariah, but it describes every moment of Dee Rees’ semi-autobiographical drama, an expansion of her 2007 short film.
In fact, it’s a better description than the actual title. This isn’t the story of an outcast but of a young woman growing into who she really is.
Alike ( pronounced “a-LEE-kay,” played by Adepero Oduye) is a 17-year-old lesbian trying to reconcile her own self-acceptance with the deep denial of her parents, Audrey and Arthur (Kim Wayans and Charles Parnell), who have problems of their own.
She lives in Brooklyn, which gives her access to New York’s welcoming gay community, and nobody at school seems to mind. But when she comes home late from clubbing with her best friend (Pernell Walker), she changes into a “girly” shirt and earrings, hoping to avoid the inevitable questions from her devoutly religious mother.
In nearly every way, Alike is a model teenager, a decent, likable straight-A student whose transgressions are in the usual range of breaking curfew and arguing with her younger sister (Sahra Mellesse).
Arthur dotes on her and defends her against Audrey’s attempts to change her with shopping sprees and forced friendship with Bina (Aasha Davis), a “good” girl from church. Bina isn’t quite the pure influence Audrey thinks, however, and the relationship pushes Alike to make some life-altering decisions.
Wayans, best known for acting in comedies with her siblings, is a revelation as a woman whose faith offers both hope and blind judgment. Several actors reprise their roles from the short, including Oduye, whose warm, subtle performance earned her an Independent Spirit Award nomination (and should have snagged one for an Oscar).
Pariah is one of those loosely paced films that takes a while to get moving, but Rees has a remarkable grasp of human nature. The characters are relatable, even in their worst moments — perhaps especially in those moments. That is, after all, when the costumes come off and the most honest choices can finally be made.