Three Imaginary Girls

Seattle's Indie-Pop Press – Music Reviews, Film Reviews, and Big Fun

{Pariah opens in Seattle at the Landmark Harvard Exit theater on Friday Jan 6th}

When I'd heard a description of Pariah I wasn't expecting much. A coming of story about a teenager dealing with her identity as a lesbian and her family's refusal to believe it was true. Let's be honest, it sounds like a story we've heard before. Probably more than once in different forms. Given all that I couldn't be more pleased to say how wrong I was. As it turns Pariah out made my list of favorite things I watched in 2011. Just squeaking in under my personal wire, as I saw the film in the last days of the year. It's a worthy addition to the coming of age genre and deserves to be seen.
Alike (Adepero Oduye) is a 17 year old high school senior in Brooklyn. That she's a lesbian is an an open (non)secret except within her household. It's clear from the get-go that she's confident that her parents will not be OK with learning the truth. And the clear denial her folks are in certainly seem supportive of the believe. As most coming of age stories Pariah is a chronicle of how the family deals with perceived adversity and how the main character grows. It's a familiar sounding story, even if it's less often told within a mainly African-American community. But the filmmakers and extremely talented actors involve make every moment feel fresh, and undeniably real.

The film opens with the audience thrust jarringly into Alike's world as the camera follows her into a club. With no background provided you're forced to decode the scene in real-time as Alike somewhat uncomfortably negotiates the sexually charged scene with best friend Laura (Pernell Walker). It doesn't take long to realize that unlike some films with similar themes Alike isn't confused about her sexual orientation. She's crystal clear on that. What she's struggling with is the confidence for her first sexual encounters. Albeit made more complicated in her case by the totality of circumstances. While there's never quite the same visual splash of cold water as the original scene it sets the stage for director Dee Rees' style which forces you to feel what Alike is going through, without having to be hit over the head with it.

Another positive surprise – for what I expect was a low budget production the look is great. Every visual choice seems to pay off. Right down to what appears to be hand-holding the camera during static shots which introduces a gentle feel of motion. Adding subtle dynamism throughout. The cinematography plays a central role in the storytelling that I think is only obvious upon reflection after existing the theater.

It's hard to overstate how well put together the actors are here. With the exception moment of some parts with Alike's mother there was never a moment when I felt I was watching people acting. While painful at times because of sympathy for the characters it was a very enjoyable watch, with strong doses of humor mixed in with the drama. Basically, I really, really liked this film. Don't let it slip out of town without giving it a chance.

The only thing I can really say negative about the picture is that it's received an R-rating. Limiting those who may see it. On one hand that's a shame, especially because it seems hard to believe that same scenes with a heterosexual protagonist would have been similarly restricted. With the exception of one song playing in the background I can't understand the rating at all. Ironically the film itself highlights the ridiculousness of the MPAA trying to keep youngsters unsullied by knowledge of an "alternative lifestyle." As the onscreen world depicts one in which the kids are totally at ease with Alike's orientation. It's only the occasional adult who has a problem with it. Which I suspect like the acting is very true to reality.