God doesn’t make mistakes.
If you can’t tell how out-of-place Alike (Adepero Oduye) feels when staring slack-jawed at a pole dancer before escaping to a seat by the wall with phone open to check the time, you will when she all but pushes her friend Laura (Pernall Walker) off of the bus home to ensure some alone time between then and her stop. What could have just been a coming of age story about a closeted teenage woman caught between public and private worlds suddenly becomes an authentic portrayal of just how scary being our true selves proves. Dee Rees‘ Pariah uses its title to describe its lead character from every angle, suffocating under the constant pressure of being what everyone else wants while terrified of discovering she’s been rejected by all.
Beyond Oduye’s unforgettable performance, this transition between worlds is represented by the seemingly simple detail of wardrobe. Alike is dressed in a man’s polo shirt with ball cap and confident if cautious swagger at the opening’s gay bar, but the bright smile leaves her face as soon as she gets Laura (confident and living free) off that bus. She removes the polo to reveal a bedazzled top, her hat replaced by earrings. Being way past curfew means her mother (Kim Wayans‘ Audrey) will confront her and so she must look the part of God-fearing “feminine” daughter as best she can. The routine is later reversed in the bathroom at school—hetero norms erased as those walls provide just enough courage to begin embracing her truth.
It’s more complex than “gay,” though. Labels can’t do emotional struggle justice because they generalize without taking the time to acknowledge each person’s unique intricacies under their umbrella description. To her mother she’s a “deviant,” a scourge of the Earth like Laura—or at least on her way to becoming one if she can’t do everything in her power to force a traditional lifestyle down upon her. To Laura she’s a confidante, friend, and equal even if Alike believes she must conform to the heavy partying, sexually enlightened atmosphere hanging around her apparently demands. And to her father (Charles Parnell‘s Arthur) she’s still “Daddy’s little girl,” an athletic and intelligent chip off the block he may subconsciously connect with because she’s gay even if he refuses to accept it.
So we watch Alike continuously place herself in situations she’s uncomfortable with because it seems like the only way to fulfill her human desire for inclusion. She must tread lightly because one false step could turn everything upside down and earn the ire of a mother already feeling abandoned by a (cheating) husband who’s barely home or the indignation of a friend who feels scorned. She goes through the motions day and night because losing anyone appears too big a blow to recover from. It’s therefore no surprise that we find her genuinely at ease with her teacher (Zabryna Guevara‘s Mrs. Alvarado). It’s this classroom where Alike can dress like she wants without acting a part. It’s the one place where nobody—herself included—expects something in return.
This is the journey towards discovery that Rees draws for her lead, one moving from easygoing fun on the basketball court with Dad, forced interaction with her Mom’s coworker’s girly daughter (Aasha Davis‘ Bina), her first “girlfriend” experience with an unlikely source, and the culmination of all the stress created by keeping each sector of her life separate exploding in her face. But maybe she’s ready for that fallout. Maybe the struggles endured and reality checks opening her eyes to a world that looks more and more like it will never accept her steels Alike’s resolve to the point of taking it so there can be no turning back. When everyone uses her sexuality to fulfill personal agendas, owning it becomes the only way to wrest back control.
It’s an impossible lesson that demands a raw authenticity Pariah brings with every second. Rees’ job is to therefore craft the surrounding characters with as much complexity as Alike in order to make the stakes matter. So she spends time with Laura as a mirror of what coming out to your parents could be (dropping out of school to work and pay the rent on her sister’s apartment after Mom disowned her). She presents the tragedy alongside the hope and strength necessary to overcome it through GED studies, nuanced emotion, and self-reflection. Walker is the third lead at best in this film’s casting hierarchy and yet we feel as though we know her to the bone. Just because she’s “out” doesn’t mean she knows her true self yet.
The same goes with Audrey and Arthur, but in the opposite way. They know exactly who they are and it’s this knowledge that puts their own daughter on a cliff. Adulthood has cemented their ideals just as it has shown which they’ll allow themselves to break. But they still believe Alike’s happiness is only assured through conventional means. Mom buys her clothes she wants her to wear and builds barriers to pull her and Laura apart. She knows the truth and believes she can change it through sheer will. Dad deludes himself. He operates in vagaries and assumption, keeping his rapport with Alike to the point of joy and creating in his mind where that joy arose. He ignores the truth because he knows he can’t change it.
Parnell and Wayans are asked to do a lot of heavy lifting with their performances as a result. They are crafting artificial façades as much as Alike, their shift from kind and gentle to prideful and enraged growing shorter as the film progresses. Both roles could easily fall prey to one-note cliché, especially considering the economy of scale in a narrative containing five principles with less than ninety minutes. The fact that they don’t is a testament to Rees’ genius and the actors’ credibility. This extends to Walker and Davis as well since all four supporting characters never divert from their motivations even when expertly shielded from the audience and those to which they converse. Some actions will surprise you in their abruptness and yet none feel false.
This means that Alike’s path won’t be one that contains a family hug at the end. But that doesn’t mean it can’t still be wholly optimistic for the future. Rees isn’t about finding happy endings where everything works out because they don’t exist in real life. Oftentimes one person’s happiness comes at the expense of others, but that’s on them. You watch Pariah and see how much “simpler” life would be if Alike was straight because everyone has prevented her from being anything but. They ushered her away from the one door she is so desperate to open in the belief it’s for her benefit when reality shows it’s for theirs. This is the type of psychological prison straight people can never understand—to wonder if your happiness is wrong.
That’s why there’s power in its depiction for everyone who watches whether you’re a religious parent who believes homosexuality is a choice between God and a child, someone struggling with your own sexuality, or a person who’s keenly aware that someone you love is. If there’s anything that sticks with you above the sense of immediacy through cinematography, color, and performances, it’s the many instances of humanity when characters are consumed by remorse or embarrassment. It’s Arthur yelling in frustration before softening with contrition. It’s Audrey fighting back tears because crying (love) would betray her faith. And it’s Alike utterly destroyed after a blindsiding rejection that risks turning trust of any kind into a liability. To watch is to understand the universal bond between pain and salvation.
Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.