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April 27, 2012

Movies You Missed 36: Pariah

PariahThis week in movies you missed: a lesbian coming-of-age story with broad appeal.

What You Missed

When Meryl Streep accepted her Golden Globe for The Iron Lady last winter, she used her speech to mention some lesser-known actresses she thought deserved recognition, including Adepero Oduye (pictured), star of Pariah. Now audiences everywhere can see what she was talking about.

Oduye plays Alike (pronounced a-LEE-kay), a Brooklyn high school senior who gets straight As, writes poetry and is fine with her sexuality — until she goes home. Then she switches her butch sports jerseys for girlie T-shirts to appease her religious mother (Kim Wayans), who is starting to fear that her oldest daughter is "turning into a man."

Meanwhile, Alike's best friend (Pernell Walker), who's already left home, teases her because she hasn't "lost her cherry" with a girl yet, while Alike's beloved dad (Charles Parnell), a cop, would rather his daughters stay virgins for life. It's a confusing world Alike is navigating — but things aren't much better for her mom, who can feel her husband's affection slipping away from her. In hopes of getting Alike to demonstrate proper feminine behavior, Mom makes her hang out with a girl from church (Aasha Davis), but the results aren't what anyone would have expected.

Why You Missed It

I saw a trailer for Pariah at the Palace 9, but the film itself never manifested in our area.

Should You Keep Missing It?

Given its grim title, I was expecting Pariah to be heavy-handed. Just the opposite. From the opening scene, set at a lesbian dance-party night featuring a graphic tune about cunnilingus, this movie feels young, raw and often fun. It doesn't dwell on Alike as a pariah or victim, but depicts her as a confused kid trying to juggle the competing demands of familial love, friendship and desire — something most viewers can relate to.

Writer-director Dee Rees makes it clear that, while it isn't as hard to be an African American lesbian as it undoubtedly was a few decades ago — especially in an urban setting — coming out to family can still be a huge hurdle. At the same time, Rees and Wayans make us feel for Alike's mom, Audrey, who sees her dream of a model middle-class family with prom-attending daughters falling apart before her eyes.

It's the type of film that doesn't demonize anybody, and the strong performances support that. Oduye — who is 33 in real life — gives Alike both poetic sensitivity and convincingly teenage sulky impulsiveness. She's likable, but not perfect. Wayans is great, and so is Parnell, who shows us a man slowly accepting his daughter as she is, even if he can't admit what he's accepting out loud.

The film is shot mostly in a handheld, impressionistic mode, with lots of bright colors, which gives a good approximation of a teen's jittery energy. If I have any problem with Pariah, it's that the ending feels like it's struggling hard to be lyrical and uplifting, when the actual conflicts remain unresolved. But it's still a powerful moment.

Verdict: Take it on Streep's authority: You should check it out.

Other New DVD Releases You May Have Missed

  • 11-11-11 (This is the day the world ends... well, in this horror thriller.)
  • Albatross (A descendant of Arthur Conan Doyle has literary dreams in this British family drama.)
  • Birdsong (French WWI romance based on a novel.)
  • Cinema Vérité (HBO drama about the filming of the first-ever reality show, PBS' "An American Family.")
  • Dark Tide (Halle Berry plays a "shark whisperer.")
  • The Innkeepers (Two employees of a New England inn go ghost hunting and get more than they bargained for in this slow-burn horror flick from director Ti West. A must for fans of The House of the Devil.)
  • Return (Linda Cardellini plays a veteran trying to adjust to life back in the States in this acclaimed drama.)
  • Some Days Are Better Than Others (Carrie Brownstein and others play awkward characters seeking happiness.)
  • Titanic (2012 Canadian miniseries about the fatal voyage)

Each week in "Movies You Missed," I review a brand-new DVD release picked for me by Seth Jarvis, buyer for Burlington's Waterfront Video, where you can obtain these fine films. (In central Vermont, try Downstairs Video.)

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