Sundance Review: Dee Rees’ “Pariah”

In 2008, Dee Rees screened her short film Pariah at Sundance. Brimming with tension and pathos, the short built to a violent climax that was blunt and powerful. Three years later, Rees returns to the festival with her debut feature film, an elaboration on Pariah that brilliantly succeeds in both expanding the story and deepening the exploration of the characters. The overt violence is gone, traded in for an insightful give and take of love and need, anger and forgiveness, anguish and growth.

The story centers on Alike, a black teenager in Brooklyn struggling with the public face of her sexual identity. I say the “public face” because unlike many other (usually wishy-washy) films about teen sexuality, Pariah isn’t a coming-of-age, coming-to-terms-with-homosexuality story. Alike knows she’s gay. Her friends and teachers know she’s gay. The drama revolves around two problems: Alike has yet to have the courage to act on her desires, and she’s terrified of what her parents will think if they ever find out.

Writer/director Dee Rees imbues each storyline and character with complex moral and emotional nuance. The relevant issues are raised subtly: there’s a quiet agony when Alike changes out of her butch clothes into more “feminine” wear for the home; there’s a painful rift seen in the contrast between the mother’s use of the name “Lee” contrasted with the father’s use of the formal “Alike;” there’s a startling humor to Alike’s fights with her sister. Characters develop in rich and unexpected ways—the father who seems so friendly is quick to give in to easy assumptions, the mother who is so manipulative is clearly a victim of sorts herself, the square friend becomes surprisingly welcoming and then painfully alienating. One of the most heart-rending scenes involves Alike’s seemingly untouchably tough, openly gay friend Laura as she tries to reach out to her own alienated mother. With Rees’ skillful touch, the performances of the entire cast—Adepero Oduye, Pernell Walker, Kim Wayans, Charles Parnell, Aasha Davis—result in a enlightening and ennobling drama.

I would love to bring this film back to where it began, screening for thousands on the rooftops, parks and streets of New York City.