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Pariah - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Directing: A-
Acting: A-
Writing: B+
Cinematography: A-
Editing: A-

It's tempting to say that Pariah is 2011's Precious, but that wouldn't really be fair -- and not just because Pariah is neither about incest nor does it contain shocking violence. Pariah is much more understated, which is appropriate to the story.

The title character is Alike (Adepero Oduye, capturing the awkwardness of adolescence as well as the tenuousness of being closeted at seventeen), although the word "pariah" actually seems a tad strong for Alike's experience. Certainly she is withdrawn at school, but if she's an outcast she's a self-made one. That said, the story here is much more about Alike's relationship with her mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans), who does indeed ultimately treat Alike as a pariah. It's particularly heartbreaking when a child says to her mother, "I love you," and all the mother can manage to say back is, "I'll pray for you."

Kim Wayans, sister to the Wayans Brothers and previously best known as a cast member on In Living Color, is the standout here, as the woman who not only can't accept her daughter's lesbianism, but doesn't even like the friend she hangs out with (Pernell Walker) or the clothes she wears. One Sunday, Alike's mother insists she change out of the blue button-down shirt and into the pink blouse she bought her, on their way out to church.

Audrey is so controlling, she manipulates Alike into acquainting herself with the daughter of another woman in the congregation, named Bina (Asha Davis). This appears at first as though it might backfire on Audrey, as Bina eventually reveals more than just a passing interest in Alike. But Bina is not all she's cracked up to be.

Pariah is written and directed by Dee Rees with both delicate compassion and a keen eye for detail. It presents characters you don't see in any other movies but which you can easily imagine existing in the real world -- indeed, many people like all members of Alike's family are likely out there. It's especially nice to see a gay teen who, while struggling with her relationship with her parents as a result of it, is really not struggling with her identity. In one tense scene, in which Audrey is railing against her, Alike says something fantastic: "There's nothing wrong with me." She is slightly panicked when she says this, but she is earnest.

In a way, Pariah is a reflection of the way this country is changing. It's not so much that it's so specific to African American culture (although one great line includes the word "incog-negro"). It's that Alike draws on the strength of her own character to stand up to her domineering mother and come to an understanding with her uncertain father. American films focusing on gay characters seem more an more to avoid making those gay characters tragic, and it's a trend that is a long time coming.

To be fair, neither of Alike's parents are truly hateful either. The audience is clearly not meant to support their ignorance or outright hostility, but these characters are also presented as worthy of compassion and understanding themselves. They are all products of their environments. But it's particularly satisfying to see one of them manage to break free.

Adepero Oduye and Kim Wayans are a lesbian daughter and unaccepting mother in PARIAH.

Overall: A-
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