out of Five
Running time: 86
Beautifully directed and sensitively written, this is a powerfully emotional coming-of-age-slash-coming-out drama with a strong sense of location, impressive cinematography and a heart-breaking central performance from Adepero Oduye.
What's it all about?
Directed by Dee Rees (expanding her own award-winning short film), Pariah stars Adepero Oduye as Alike (prounced A-leek), a 17 year old African-American lesbian who hasn't yet come out to her church going mother Audrey (Kim Wayans) or her stern father Arthur (Charles Parnell), even though her smart mouthed younger sister Sharondah (Sahra Mellesse) seems to have figured it out. Despite dressing like the other lesbians at school and being taken to lesbian nightclubs by her boyish best friend Laura (Pernell Walker), Alike doesn't feel like she fits in to the gay scene and instead finds herself drawn to sensitive Bina (Aasha Davis), the daughter of one of her mother's church friends.
The performances are excellent: Adepero Oduye is utterly heart-breaking as Alike, a young woman who's sure of her sexuality but not yet of how she fits into the world, while Pernell Walker is
terrific as Alike's loyal best friend who has a powerfully moving sub-plot of her own. Similarly, Wayans and Parnell are superb as Alike's parents (who also have their own problems), while Sahra Mellesse has several funny moments as Sharondah.
The sensitively written script (described by Rees as semi-autobiographical) feels fresh and original and the dialogue is excellent, with the key dramatic scenes not always playing out as you'd expect; the character work, in particular, is extremely assured. Similarly, Rees allows several scenes to take place with minimal dialogue, relying instead on looks, glances and facial expressions.
The film is beautifully shot, courtesy of cinematographer Bradford Young, who does extraordinary things with colour (note the abundance of sunny, peaceful yellows towards the end of the film) and who makes great use of a number of authentic Brooklyn locations.
In addition, there are several memorable scenes, both laugh-out-loud funny (such as Sharondah catching Alike with a new toy; Mellesse's reaction is priceless), deeply moving (Laura's relationship with her mother, the trajectory of Alike and Bina's friendship) and genuinely shocking.
Superbly written, brilliantly acted and powerfully emotional, Pariah is a remarkably assured feature debut that marks writer-director Dee Rees out as a talent to watch. Highly recommended and one of the best films of the London Film Festival.