Get me a beer, please.
It's Sunday morning!
It goes with the spaghetti!
Pariah is in many ways a standard sexual-identity coming-of-age story. Teenager Alike (Adepero Oduye) (and it's pronounced "ah-LEE-kay"…geddit?) is gay, and outside the house, she's out of the closet: at school, she's butched up (and eavesdropping delightedly on straight girls talking about whether they'd go with a lady…and which one), and on weekends she hits the gay strip club with her friend Laura (Pernell Walker). But it's a temporary freedom; Alike spends a lot of time scurrying to make curfew, or changing back into het drag on the bus, so as not to arouse the suspicions of her parents.
It's too late, of course; her mother Audrey (Kim Wayans) in particular is terrified that Alike is a lesbian, and she doesn't genuinely believe that buying her daughter more feminine clothes, or steering her towards more seemingly "conventional" friends like Bina (Aasha Davis), is going to change anything — but she doesn't genuinely believe that her husband, Arthur (Charles Parnell), has to work late, or that anyone appreciates her. She has to try to control something, and that something is Alike (whose nickname, perhaps tellingly, is the gender-ambiguous "Lee"). But Bina isn't what Audrey or Alike thought, and…you know. Heartbreak, truth-telling, the beginning of a greater journey.
Despite feeling like I'd seen a variation on Pariah about three dozen times in the '90s alone, I liked parts of it a lot. Oduye is captivating; she brings a hopeful energy to the role of Alike, and particularly in Alike's scenes with her father, a cop with fidelity issues who's a little ahead of Audrey on the "get used to it" spectrum, she gives you a bittersweet snapshot of 17 years old, and how much child there still is in there at that age. The script has a feisty sense of humor about itself, too — the dialogue above, the scene in which Laura helps Alike negotiate a strap-on; "Yo, I been to Pough-keep-sie"; and other little moments keep Pariah from verging into Movie of the Week territory. Audrey could easily turn into a flat, unconsidered monster given her actions, which rival Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People for movie-mother coldness, but Wayans shows you her struggle, her benighted self-righteousness.
But the story is a little young-seeming — unformed, not finished. The third act is set in motion by an abrupt and non-credible heel turn that sells out the character as written to that point, and it's distracting for the remainder of the movie. Arthur's reluctant acceptance of the truth about his daughter is set up in a subtle and fresh way in scenes around the neighborhood, but the conclusion is rushed through with an on-the-nose rooftop speech. The heart of the story is the family and its messy ways of trying to deal with itself, but writer/director Dee Rees kind of Shyamalans the payoff. It's an 86-minute movie, and I do love a brisk feature, but this one needed another 10-15 minutes to work everything out organically (without using Alike's in-class poetry readings as a shortcut — and if movies could just put that device in a drawer for about 20 years, I'd love it).
But it's almost there. The pacing is disjointed and the last third felt like a knee-jerk time-to-wrap-it-up scenario, but Rees clearly has an ear and a fondness for her characters, and can give the audience a sense of place. The script just needed one more draft. The draft we got is still pretty fun, though, so give it a look.
…And that's 31 films, folks. A resounding high ten of congratulations to my handsome and hilarious colleague, Couch Baron, for completing this ridonk task we set ourselves. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to read a book.
Tags: 31 Days 31 Films Aasha Davis Adepero Oduye Charles Parnell Couch Baron Dee Rees Kim Wayans M. Night Shyamalan Mary Tyler Moore movies Pariah Pernell Walker