Combustible Celluloid
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With: Adepero Oduye, Pernell Walker, Aasha Davis, Charles Parnell, Sahra Mellesse, Kim Wayans, Shamika Cotton, Ray Anthony Thomas, Afton Williamson, Zabryna Guevara, Kim Sykes, Rob Morgan, Nina Daniels
Written by: Dee Rees
Directed by: Dee Rees
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content and language
Running Time: 86
Date: 01/20/2011

Pariah (2011)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Out and Within

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Along with Margin Call, Pariah is the year's most impressive debut film, coming from NYU graduate Dee Rees (see my interview). It's the story of a teen girl in Brooklyn coming to terms with her sexuality. Most coming out stories involve characters trying to find their identities, and as a result, end up having none. The main character here, Alike -- played by the remarkable Adepero Oduye -- knows who she is. She's already a grounded, complete character. She just has to figure out where she fits. And what to wear.

Alike's best friend is Laura (Pernell Walker), a butch lesbian who dresses her in baggy pants and baseball caps and drags her to raunchy clubs to pick up potential lovers. But Alike is a more poetic soul. Her parents don't want her hanging out with Laura, and would rather she spend time with Bina (Aasha Davis). Alike balks, but finds that she genuinely likes Bina; Bina listens to different styles of music and even seems to be open to... other things.

Alike's parents are a big part of this story too. Rees suggests an entire history between them simply by showing food. Audrey (Kim Wayans) cooks homemade meals for her husband Arthur (Charles Parnell) and leaves them in the refrigerator, covered in aluminum foil. However, they stack up as Arthur eats nothing but take out food. Audrey fusses over Alike's wardrobe, while Arthur seems more open-minded, but neither parent can handle the eventual news of Alike's sexual preference for women. A wonderful young actress named Sahra Mellesse plays Alike's spunky younger sister, providing another corner of tension for Alike's complicated life.

Aside from a full-blooded, nuanced story, Rees has also perfected the film's visual style. It's a combination of Brooklyn street realism and dreamlike poetry. The color palette suggests subtle emotional movements, and the framing, music, and use of shadows and light are faultless, logically shifting with changes in character and mood. It's unusual to see this much sheer confidence and command in a debut film. Yet it does not show off. Everything is done in support of the character and her emotional journey.

It's perhaps a bit awkward that Alike uses writing to break out of her particular little prison, and that a big poem at the end -- however beautiful -- is the device by which she frees herself. This is a partially autobiographical story, and it makes sense that Rees would include her artistic ambitions as part of the story; they can be forgiven.

From an early glance, I assumed that this movie would be 2011's version of Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. But this movie is far more subtle and powerful -- it's less of a blatant soap opera -- and as a result will probably be seen by far fewer people. Still, I hope it establishes a foothold for Rees, as I hope to see what she can do when she truly spreads her wings and flies.
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