BY GARY M. KRAMER | The coming out and coming-of age story gets a welcome new voice in Dee Rees’ very fine feature “Pariah,” based on her 2007 film short of the same name.
The emotional center of protagonist Alike (Adepero Oduye) is clear from the outset. This African-American youth expends enormous energy changing clothes to alternately hide and become “Lee,” her AG (aggressive) butch identity. The emotional struggle that entails is palpable in every minute of “Pariah” — such is the film’s urgency.
Alike is out to her best friend, Laura (Pernell Walker), a butch high school dropout, but to almost no one else. Alike’s religious mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans), suspects her daughter is a lesbian, lamenting, “I’m tired of tomboy.” Audrey asks husband Arthur (Charles Parnell) to broach the topic with their daughter, but after threatening a man who disparaged her for her masculine appearance, he doesn’t seem eager to take on any more.
The family dynamics in “Pariah” build to the expected confrontation, which proves a searing, shattering moment. Leading up to that, Alike bickers with her mother about everything from her curfew to Audrey’s well-intentioned but ill-advised efforts to clothe her daughter in pink blouses.
As “Daddy’s girl,” Alike has a more obviously loving relationship with Arthur. The two share a particularly vivid scene in the kitchen, as they both understand what they are talking about without saying just what needs to be expressed. Like much of the film, this is shot in a kitchen-sink style that adds emotional resonance to this realistically rendered film.
Under Rees’ direction, Oduye makes Alike ingratiating from the start. She is a smart student and good writer who pens poems about butterflies suffocating in their cocoons — an apt if obvious metaphor for her own feelings. In school, she keeps to herself, often trying to remain invisible as she listens in on the banter of other girls.
Her lack of self-confidence becomes clear when she seeks out a late night bus or a high school bathroom to transform her appearance. Alike’s poetry teacher suggests she “go deeper,” and this advice extends to identity as well as her writing.
Although Alike is anxious to explore her sexuality, she is also afraid. In one early comic scene, she asks Laura to help her get a strap-on to aid in her seduction of a girl she is crushed on at a club. In a later potent moment, Alike experiences heartbreak and, in a rage, turns over trashcans in the streets and messes up her room. These scenes effectively convey the high-strung emotions of a confused teenager grappling with her desires.
Alike’s relationship with Bina (Aasha Davis), a fellow student whom Audrey wants her to befriend, provides poignant irony. The two teens initially seem to have little in common, but in time they bond over music. Their friendship develops into a romance that helps Alike express her true self — cautiously at first and then completely.
“Pariah,” which justly won a prize for cinematography at Sundance earlier this year, adeptly employs visual cues to chart Alike’s journey. The hazy sources of light that predominate in the early scenes become sharper as the film progresses, as Alike herself finds clarity. Rees composes her shots with a keen eye. At times, the director frames Alike in silhouette, in scenes that recall the work of Kara Walker, an African-American artist who explores gender, sexuality, and identity.
Rees carefully explore these themes while giving her characters moments to reveal themselves. Alike has many scenes where she privately smiles proudly — playing basketball with her father and during her budding romance with Bina — and her glow is infectious.
“Pariah” succeeds in large measure because of Oduye’s impressive turn in the leading role. She brings moving authenticity to the joy and heartbreak of Alike’s transformation.
Kim Wayans, however, is a bit one-note as Audrey, a woman who means well, but comes across as a bit of a monster. That said, a lunch scene late in the film between mother and daughter is riveting.
Rees may be treading familiar territory with “Pariah,” but Alike’s articulation of her desires and frustrations never comes across as cliché.
SIMPLY ALLOWING HERSELF
Adepero Oduye makes an indelible impression as Alike in “Pariah.” Gay City News spoke to the 31-year-old actor, nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for her performance, about how she developed her character.
GARY M. KRAMER: You’re playing a teenager in “Pariah.” What were you like as a teenager?
ADEPERO ODUYE: Figuring it all out — like most of us were all doing. It got to a point where I knew where my strengths are. I was not used to expressing myself. Everything was kind of kept inside. I slowly discovered things that allowed me to outwardly express myself — so singing and then a bit of writing/ spoken word, then a bit of acting.
I did a lot of gospel choir in high school. I had a teacher who asked us to write poems. He encouraged us to get up on stage and speak our poetry. It came from me. It was the most personal thing — I could get stuff out that was going on — not feeling beautiful or not fitting in or odd man out.
GMK: Did you write Alike’s poetry?
AO: Dee [Rees, the writer/ director] sent me a notebook, and said to start writing as Alike. I wrote a whole bunch of stuff in that book.
GMK: How did you approach how Alike reveals herself to people?
AO: I relate to that idea of stepping back and observing and checking out the scene — see how people are. Figure that out and then determine what you can reveal to certain people. I feel that Alike is very much, like, observing someone, something and then, based on what she figures out, that that person’s OK.
GMK: You use your expressions — smiles especially — and body language very well to communicate what Alike is feeling. How did you develop that?
AO: I don’t know! I just do it. It’s instinctive. You don’t have to do so much to be in an open, vulnerable state. It’s that things with Alike, the moments, are so heavy and overwhelming. The times I can just smile and be…. I just express myself in all situations fully. When I’m excited or happy or when I’m super-awkward, I just allow myself. I don’t stop myself, I just go.
GMK: Speaking of awkward, what can you say about the scene where you sport a strap-on?
AO: As the actor, I didn’t feel awkward about it at all. I should feel weird or embarrassed for walking on set for eight hours with a strap-on on, but I wasn’t, and I think because I wasn’t, when I had to be I could be.
That dichotomy of not being embarrassed at all and this is a story I’m telling. Teenagers figure it out, and making crazy ass mistakes is part of it. You have no idea what the heck you’re doing!
Directed by Dee Rees
Opens Dec. 28
Landmark Sunshine Cinema
143 E. Houston St., btwn. First & Second Aves.
Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center
144 W. 65th St.