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Pariah: Coming Out While Coming of Age

The right film for Idaho's difficult times


Pariah, the enlightening film about a girl realizing her sexual being, has come to Idaho at the most appropriate time--unfortunately.

I say unfortunately because the film asks us to examine the delicate balance of our identities mere days after a handful of Idaho lawmakers dismissed an effort to protect its citizens from discrimination based on sexual orientation. And even though our laws may not fully reflect our truths, sometimes the arts (and film in particular) reveal what we know is true and what is right. Pariah, a small film with huge truths, is not to be missed.

Webster's Dictionary reminds us that a "pariah" is a person without status, a rejected member of society, an outcast. And such is the lot of 17-year-old Alike (pronounced ah-LEE-kay), who is shackled by her parents, her society and Brooklyn, in no particular order.

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Alike, portrayed in a stand-out debut by Adepero Oduye, is on the edge of embracing her identity as a lesbian. But while coming of age, she lives in fear of coming out. Each morning, when she arrives at school, she ditches her traditional prim clothes (representing how her mother sees her) in favor of a wardrobe representing how she sees herself. In one of the film's most telling vignettes, Alike transforms into her alter-ego Lee, trading a pink cardigan in favor of a rugby shirt, do-rag and baseball cap.

In Pariah's numerous scenes on dingy trains and in dingier nightclubs, cinematographer Bradford Young exposes a stark cinema verite that keeps his audience on just this side of danger. Yet you never feel uncomfortable, no matter where the film transports you.

Alike lives with her parents Audrey (a warm performance from Kim Wayans) and Arthur (Charles Parnell) in Brooklyn's Fort Greene neighborhood. Her father is an NYPD detective who doesn't even have the skills to detect his own daughter's secret. In another of the film's many vignettes, Alike and her father share awkwardly tender moments in the family kitchen, starting and stopping conversations that go nowhere. It is expert screenwriting, revealing the alienation that sometimes accompanies a parent's unspoken love.

The theme of repression of sexual identity is certainly not new to cinema. But Pariah examines a subculture--lesbianism among black women--that has rarely been explored on film. Writer-director Dee Rees, a New York University film student, originally conceived Pariah as a 29-minute short. But instead of simply lengthening scenes, Rees has fleshed out a wonderfully compassionate narrative. It's a bit of a cinematic miracle that Pariah was shot in 19 days with a budget of less than $500,000.

At its September 2011 premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Rees said her film was reflective of her own coming out, as well as her struggles with her parents about her sexuality.

But a caveat: Don't make the mistake that Pariah is solely about a black lesbian. It is ultimately about identity. And who among us hasn't been faced with having our own identity shaped by others vs. ourselves?

Pariah opens with a quote from the late poet Audre Lorde's 1982 memoir:

"Wherever the bird with no feet flew, she found trees with no limbs."

It's a heartbreaking metaphor not only for Alike but also for Idaho.