An audience doesn't have to directly relate to every element of a story in order to come along for the ride--they just need to have a point of access that helps them buy into the rest of it. In an emotionally dense piece like Pariah, it's risky--there are numerous obstacles for the audience to stumble over. Alike is an African American lesbian teenager, desperately working to keep her head above water while dodging life's bullets. Those years are challenging enough when you're not worried about being "found out," or why "what" you are is even bad in the first place. Director and writer Dee Rees, along with a phenomenal performance by Adepero Oduye, gives plenty of points of access for audiences to identify with Alike, and the result is rewarding, rich and universally important.
The first point in this movie's favor is that it was so subtly performed by such talented actors that it felt like a documentary, which made me remember that Alike is the kind of kid that the "It Gets Better" campaign is made for. In fact, I am still having trouble believing Oduye is not actually that teenager (in fact, she's 33 and was pre-med in college). The entire cast works the same way. Who are these people, and can we get them in more films? Alike's best friend in the world, Laura (Pernell Walker), only has a few short films on her IMDb page, but her talent suggests something different. And even though I recognized Kim Wayans playing Alike's mother, I figured I was just watching what she does off the set. Most films these days are so predictable and lazily written that you can practically hear what went on in the pitch meeting and on the set. Not here, though. This movie was charged with the kind of energy, frustration, fear, and vulnerability that I remember from my own teenage years.
Even though it won the cinematography award at Sundance in 2010, the film's visual style only seemed obvious a couple of times--that's how much the movie gripped me. Its constant darkness, its shadowed alleys and late nights, all seemed to reflect Alike's troubled, searching eyes. Things only get lighter when there is a glimmer of hope for her in the form of a beautiful girl who likes her, bringing rare rays of sunshine and beauty to replace the harsh fluorescence of reality. It's so nice to see Alike and Laura smile, I can almost tell you the time each one occurs.
Movies that try too hard to send a message are a bummer. This film, like Andrew Haigh's Weekend about two men who meet on Friday and are in love by Sunday, resonates with me the same way this one does. It's all about the perils of being human and figuring things out. Sometimes you come across shocking heartbreak and slaps to the face, but occasionally life will serve up a platter of beauty, with gentle caresses and sweet kisses. We make it through both because we are tough, but the details don't really matter. We can all identify.