Review: 'Pariah'

Adapero Oduye as Alike in 'Pariah.'

I suspect that a major blow-up and period of separation between a young adult and his or her parents is a vital part of the growth process. For their child's whole life, the parents — by necessity — treat their kid like a kid. When the child is on the brink of adulthood, they must redefine their relationship with their folks. Either they force their parents to change their perspective and treat them like an adult (well, more or less) or they risk spending their life playing the role of eternal child with mom and dad.

This usually doesn't happen without a big, fat dust-up, a period of separation and a lot of hurt feelings. Some young adults surely have made the transition from being treated like an offspring to a sort-of peer in a smooth, peaceful fashion. I just don't know any of them.

Pariah (showtimes) is a smart, appealing coming-of-age story. Alike (pronounced ah-LEE-kay and played with great charm and nuance by Adapero Oduye) is a high school student in Brooklyn living a middle-class life with her mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans), her father, Arthur (Charles Parnell) and her younger sister, Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse).

There is tension galore in the house. The girls generally get along well, growing closer as they huddle together listening to their parents argue.

Mom is brittle and very concerned with fitting in with the mainstream. She resents her husband's frequent absences due to his job as a police officer and suspects he may be cheating on her.

Dad is a colorful man who enjoys being an authority figure. He's one of those “I'm the king and this is my castle” kind of husbands, frequently countermanding his wife's commands to the girls, in part because he disagrees, but mostly to remind his spouse who's the boss. He's close to Alike, calling her “Daddy's girl.”

FYI: Daddy's girl is a lesbian. Did you notice how I didn't mention that until halfway through this essay? I did that because if you read “coming-of-age” and “lesbian” in the opening paragraph, you probably would have rolled your eyes, muttered “another coming-out story — no thank you” and moved on to the music page.

Hang in with me. Yes, the story — a semi-autobiographical story by first-time director Dee Rees and a feature-length elaboration of her 2007 short film — includes Alike's coming out, but that's just a part of her coming-of-age. Alike is a talented young writer and, when she isn't angry or hurt over skirmishes with her folks or other girls, a charming human being.

I particularly enjoyed watching Alike and her friends trying out identities the way shoppers try on clothes. Alike is a lesbian — no question there — but what will her personal style be? Tough cookie dressed like a stereotypical teenage boy? Sensitive artist? Girly-girl house music partier? Depends on her mood — and which girl she's hanging with.

Alike's sexual journey is important — and should be particularly appreciated by young adults — but the larger story deals with a child trying to find her place in the world while attempting to get her folks to treat her like an adult. Hiply-lit and shot, the unfortunately named Pariah is rich enough to justify its clichés and filled with interesting details. It is specific enough to feel universal — don't you love when that happens?


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