Editor's note: Shortly after this review went to press, Focus Features informed us that they are pushing this film's Orlando release to an undetermined February date.
Debut feature writer-director Dee Rees’ Pariah is a deceptive little film. When I first saw it months ago, I walked out underwhelmed, if appreciative of its complicated subject matter – an African- American butch teen comes out (or attempts to, at least) to her disbelieving parents who have spent a lifetime trying to girlie her up and bury their heads in the sand. Touching stuff. But it’s shot with a gritty forcefulness that struck me as more affectation than vérité, and it’s injected with notions that its lead character, Alike (pronounced Ah-LEE-kay), could be a poet if only the right person believed in her and supported her. I felt at the time as if I’ve seen this movie a hundred times over. My subconscious, however, had a different take. Over the next several weeks, Pariah, and Alike, played with unnerving stillness by Adepero Oduye, who played the same character in Rees’ 2007 short of the same name, never quite left my thoughts.
It sank in that some key scenes – like when Alike tries to wrap her head around the physics of a strap-on dildo, or when she gets turned on to progressive conscious soul music by a bi-curious acquaintance, or her steely resolve when the time comes to say the words “I’m gay” out loud – didn’t strike me as key scenes on first viewing, so subtle is Rees’ touch and Oduye’s inhabitation.
On a second viewing, I couldn’t escape one thought: There’s nothing simple about teens coming out to their parents. If we’ve seen it a lot in pop culture these days, it’s because it needs to be seen until it’s understood that parents are not always – or even usually – an embattled gay kid’s salvation, as so many (including President Obama) have suggested. Sometimes the parents are the villains, the obstacle to overcome – the only people in the world with the ability to financially, mentally and emotionally devastate their children before their lives ever get started. Oduye’s performance is noteworthy because she absorbs that pain rather than deflects it, and I’m glad her Alike forced me to comprehend her. She’s worth it.