If the rest of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival is as promising as its opening night offering Pariah, then this is going to be an exceptional year for new directing talent.  The film, developed from Dee Rees’ short film accepted to 2007′s festival, is an African-American-lesbian-coming-of-age story.  On paper, that may look like the kind of film which is an amalgamation of clichés among marginal independent film communities, but it is not.  Pariah is a work of great sensitivity, featuring an ensemble of relatively unknown actors whose nuanced performances hit home in a way that will affect anyone who’s ever been a teenager or a part of a family.  Although it is comparable to Precious, but with any luck, it will overshadow it–even without the help of Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey.  To learn why, continue after the jump…

The Players:

  • Director/Writer – Dee Rees
  • Executive Producer – Spike Lee
  • Starring – Adepero Oduye, Aasha Davis, Charles Parnell, Pernell Walker, Kim Wayans

The Plot:

Pariah is the story of Alike, a seventeen year old girl living in Brooklyn, coming to terms with not only her sexual identity, but her self-worth, as well.  She has to hide her homosexuality from her family for fear of being a failure as a daughter, while her inability to embrace it among her gay friends makes her an equal disappointment to them.  As she inches closer to accepting her identity, her life becomes increasingly chaotic and she must face her own truths, and stand up for herself on her own.

The Good:

  • The Ensemble:  All of the actors in this film turn in grade-A performances.  Perhaps it was lengthy rehearsal, or maybe it was natural chemistry, but the dynamic among these family members is remarkable.  The relationships are so clearly defined in such minimal terms, that a brief argument over what the girls wear to church can display a mother’s desperate attempt to stay relevant and influential in her children’s lives, a father’s desire for only the happiest of lives for his daughters, and a teenager’s constant, yet futile, grab for independence.  Intense and deep emotions are quietly conveyed without a single word being spoken, but with a strained glance, and a pinching of the lips.
  • Adepero Oduye delivers a standout performance in the lead role, dredging the depths of fear for rejection and shame to exemplify the terror that is being a teenager and not knowing who they actually are.  To do so clearly requires such strength and grace, that those beautiful qualities almost overshadow the tragedy of her character…but not quite.
  • The cinematography:  Pariah is rich with vivid color, livening even the most drab settings to create an even, resonant tone.  And it’s not just for the sake of atmosphere; the palate serves to explicate the characters.  Alike is like a chameleon, constantly melting into her surroundings to not be noticed, and is thus always painted in colors.  Her dark skin shines with purples, greens, and blues while soft focus background lights add a sense of stylized design.
  • The production:  This making of this film has a great story.  This is a story that began as a short, NYU thesis film (under the tutelage of resident auteur Spike Lee), which was then developed through the Sundance Institute, and accepted to the festival in 2007.  The feature script was written in longhand, while director Dee Reese worked as a production assistant on one of Lee’s film’s.  During breaks, he would advise her on how to refine the script.  The project barely had two nickels to rub together, but the cast and crew were so dedicated to the film that they endured, and the final result shows love and passion within the work.

The Bad:

  • Its emotional difficulty:  This is a challenging, unpleasant movie.  Being a teenager can be a harrowing, depressing experience without the adversity of facing the fear of coming out.  And it’s not just Alike’s struggle in the film.  Audrey (Wayans), Alike’s mother, displays a lonliness and fear that comes with a family’s shift out of adolescence.  Moreover, her paranoia and resistance to even the notion that her daughter might be gay doesn’t vilify her, but makes her breakdown even more wrenching.  Following the movie, it was extremely difficult to shake the question, “how is it that a parent can love their child so deeply until the moment they find out they’re gay?”
  • Precious 2?: It will be very easy for critics and audiences to compare this film to Lee Daniels’ Precious.  The emotional tone is similar in that a withdrawn, downtrodden teenage girl must find her confidence and self reliance in the face of emotional adversity.  It is a much greater achievement in artistry, and it will likely get overlooked because people will feel like they’ve already seen this movie.  Not to mention the fact that challenging gay cinema rarely makes it to mainstream audiences.

Overall:

This is a perfect film for Sundance: It delves deeply and intimately into a personal experience, creating unique and memorable characters, yet it is representative of, and makes accessible a sentiment that may be felt in different cultures everywhere.  Without the distraction of celebrity talent, audiences are forced to really engage and join in the unfolding of these characters growth.  The whole cast’s performances superb, particularly its lead actress’.  This is a beautiful film, and if it makes it out of Park City, deserves to be seen.

Rating: 8/10