Note: I’m a little bit behind schedule, so this will probably be the only review for this weekend. I’ll catch up later in the week or next weekend.
Directed by Dee Rees, Pariah is centered on Alike, AKA Lee (Adepero Oduye), a teenage lesbian growing up in Brooklyn. Lee juggles two personas. When she’s at school or hanging out with her best friend Laura (Pernell Walker), she prefers to wear masculine clothes and adopt a butch aesthetic. But she changes her appearance on the bus and in bathroom stalls so that her mother (Kim Wayans) will see her as suitably feminine.
Lee’s mother, Audrey, struggles to understand daughter and is scared by her suspicions about Lee’s sexuality. Dismayed by Lee’s friendship with Laura, who’s openly gay, Audrey pushes Lee to strike up a friendship with a more feminine girl, Bina (Aasha Davis), in hopes that Bina will be a better influence. Spending time with Bina does create distance between Lee and Laura, but not for the reason Audrey hopes. Lee, who is shy and inexperienced with women, finds herself growing infatuated with Bina. And Bina may be interested in her, too.
But for how much longer can Lee withstand the crushing pressure of living up to her mother’s expectations, or her uncertainty about opening up to her loving but distant father (Charles Parnell), who is also in denial about her sexuality?
The film strikes a perfect balance of humanizing Lee’s parents without seeking to justify their homophobia. It is hard not to feel empathy for Audrey as it becomes clear that she also feels like a pariah, neglected by her unfaithful husband and unable to relate to her oldest daughter. But it is ultimately her own unwillingness to accept Lee take keeps them apart.
The beautiful thing about Pariah is that there are are no easy answers or picturesque lessons about acceptance. Lee’s journey is less about teaching her parents to accept her than it is about finding her own strength, even if that means losing her already delicate place in her family and community. Just like in real life, Lee ultimately has very little power over whether people accept her. But this makes her coming of age and her realization of her own strength all the more powerful.