It’s easy to see why the feature film debut of writer/director Dee Rees was a hit at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s a gritty, low budget film that provides what would appear to be a candid look at the lives of young African American lesbians living in modern Brooklyn. It’s a culturally significant (to some) low-budget independent film with an undeniable sincerity that excuses many of its faults. It’s not for everyone though. There was a film screening a few mornings before that of Pariah that was canceled due to an unexpected power outage. My great-uncle Harvey Pollack was in attendance for both screenings, his reaction to Pariah, “I wish the power had gone out during that one.” Thus 90-year-old Jewish statisticians need not apply.
17-year-old Alike is a somewhat closeted lesbian who lives with her hard-nosed detective father, hospital-working mother, and bitchy younger sister. Her best friend is Laura, an aggressive, almost thug-like young woman whose open attitude towards her sexuality led to her current state as a GED-studying manual laborer shunned by her parents. Alike is quickly maturing as she changes clothes at school behind her mother’s back, has her first full-on sexual experience, and wears a strap-on to a lesbian dance club. By the film’s end she’s off to a fancy college thanks to the encouragement of a sage-like teacher (Kim Wayans) where, according to a voice over, her “spirit takes flight.” The power of slam poetry hasn’t felt this trite since the last season of Survivor.
The film’s strengths are found in the supporting characters, particularly Alike’s family and their methods of dealing with their daughter’s sexuality. Her father defends her from neighborhood heckles with a noticeable reluctance while her mother, in a particularly heartbreaking scene, flat out calls her “nasty ass dyke.” The whole affair is certainly nothing new (see 2011’s similarly themed releases Gun Hill Road and Circumstance, both films featured family members dealing with teenage homosexuality), but originality can be excused when sincerity is at the forefront.
Pariah opens today at the Ritz at the Bourse.