In her 2012 Golden Globe acceptance speech, Best Actress winner Meryl Streep called out Pariah star Adepero Oduye for delivering one of that year’s extraordinary leading performances by a female and also made mention of the film itself.
That same year, when presenting the cast of In Living Color with the TV Land Groundbreaker Awards, Whoopi Goldberg called out co-star Kim Wayan’s performance in the film as one that should have been nominated for an Oscar.
Both are with good reason as Pariah is an excellent film with outstanding performances by Oduye, Wayans, Pernell Walker and a solid supporting cast.
Oduye stars as Alike, a black lesbian teenager coming into her own as such. She often hangs out with her friend Laura (Walker), who is also a lesbian. Laura is a bit of a caretaker and protector of sorts for Alike and may have deeper feelings for Alike than she may even know, want to admit or allow given who she is in Alike’s life.
Alike is stuck between two worlds in that she is out to her friends, but not to her family – particularly her deeply religious mother Audrey (Wayans). Alike dresses as her other lesbian friends do when she is out and about with them, but on the way home changes her clothes so as to appear more tomboyish than lesbian– which seems to be more acceptable to Audrey than the alternative. Despite these efforts, Audrey still has her suspicions about Alike – largely because of her associations with Laura.
To create distance between Alike and Laura, Audrey forces an association between Alike and Bina (Aasha Davis), the more ladylike daughter of a fellow churchgoer, in hopes that some of Bina’s femininity will rub off on Alike. In a sense it does when Bina makes a move on Alike. But just as Alike and Bina start to grow closer, Alike and Laura start to drift apart.
Bina eventually breaks things off with Alike when things get too serious — and Alike finds that Laura no longer wants to be the shoulder she cries on. That changes when an argument between Alike’s parents over Alike’s perceived sexuality causes Alike to come out to them. Audrey attacks Alike and Alike retreats to Laura’s – where she stays until she can start college early out in California.
In her breakout film, writer/director Dee Rees has crafted a beautifully layered story with sadness (Audrey’s treatment of Alike), warmth (the relationship between Alike and her father Arthur – even after her coming out) and heart (the relationship between Alike and Laura). Even the comparatively minor subplots — the troubles in Audrey and Arthur’s (Charles Parnell) marriage, Alike’s sister Sharonda’s (Sahra Mellesse) own discovery that Alike is gay, Laura’s pursuit of an education, Laura’s estranged relationship with her own mother as well as Audrey’s inability to connect with people (including her own daughter) are effective without being contrived and are neither distracting to the film’s main thrust nor a throwaway for time.
It would have been easy for Rees to make Alike’s story about escaping a less than great home life by moving to a better place. But Rees went a different way for the purposes of this film by making Audrey the catalyst for Alike to move toward a life for herself – which is far more empowering than simply being about an escape. And Rees ably draws that distinction with a simple exchange between Alike and Arthur toward the end of the film. We don’t know if Alike’s life will be better or if she’ll return home at some point, but it’s hers to pursue no matter how it turns out.
For all the great things about LGBTQI cinema, perspective is one thing that is severely lacking. But Pariah offers that while still being accessible to those who, like Streep, enjoy a well-told story and like, Goldberg, appreciate a great performance.