Perhaps I’m just getting old. Or maybe I’m just much more of a Victorian moralist than I thought. Either way, here I am writing a second review in a week in which I praise a film, but temper said praise with prudish caveats.
Pariah is the coming out tale of an African-American, Brooklyn teenager named Alike (played by Adepero Oduye). Alike lives with her younger sister and parents. Dad and Mom both suspect their elder daughter is a lesbian, and neither are pleased by this. Mom is completely opposed to what she believes her daughter is becoming, and she condemns Alike’s budding sexuality on religious grounds. Dad seems somewhat in denial, but he eventually comes to face reality, and is defensive of Alike, even supportive of her development. The plot takes us through Alike’s misadventures and evolving friendships with other young women, gay and straight, as Alike tries to navigate questions of identity and self-worth. Meanwhile, we also get to observe the tension in Alike’s parents’ marital relationship, a tension due in part to Alike’s social/sexual development, but the product of some other issues as well.
I don’t know what it’s like to be an ethnic minority. I don’t know what it’s like to be a lesbian. I don’t know what it’s like to be stuck in a world of seemingly few economic and educational opportunities. So it’s probably impossible for me to evaluate how well the film portrays a life characterized by these features and impediments. But it felt incredibly authentic. I empathized with the awkwardness and trapped feelings that someone in Alike’s shoes must surely face daily. As a result, the film was engrossing, and there probably aren’t too many higher complements I could pay it. Alike’s daily grind is gritty and chaotic and awkward, but in the end, she does manage to come to grips with who she is and what she wants her life path to be.
My only hesitation in recommending the film stems from its opening scenes, in which we see Alike out on the town, visiting a local lesbian club. The visuals are raw, sexual and accompanied by a pretty explicit rap song blaring in the background. (Come to think of it, there are a couple other scenes with “too much information” as well). The whole package was a bit much for me. (Yes, I know I sound like my mother. Sigh). Though in retrospect, I’ve had second thoughts about why that is. In part, I just wanted the explicitness toned down a bit to better suit my tastes. But I wonder if the opening didn’t also shatter my stereotypes of how lesbian women do, in fact, behave. So your mileage may vary.