Every Woman Should Be Free
Moved by a rawness of story, of a powerful largely theater and television cast, and of an intense screen realization, Pariah figures among the best out of Sundance Screenwriters’, Directors’ and Producers’ Labs. Like many débuts, it is admittedly “semi-autobiographical,” and one hopes that writer-director Dee Rees will in expand her talent in the future.
This feature-length enlargement of her 2007 same-name short actually came first, “the original version.” Needing a graduate thesis for film school, she mined the opening of a work begun two years earlier to turn it into that award-winning twenty-seven minutes.
In storyline a coming-of-age overlaid with a coming out, the eighty-six-minute original pictures an adolescent who becomes her own person with the strength to assert that individual sexuality is neither optional nor open to choosing but, rather, a component of what one is. That suggestively surnamed Alike “Lee” Freeman (Nigeria-born Brooklynite Adepero Oduye) is African-American, and the setting middle class minority Fort Greene in Brooklyn, is not the point here. Young people’s mumbling and slang will be a stumbling block for mainstream audiences, but the lives and dilemmas of the mostly black and some Hispanic teens go beyond, or rather above, racial-cultural lines.
At seventeen, the high school junior is shy, enough so that, though well tuned, her putdown of a taunting adult male in front of her father, is out of character. An A-student who writes poetry -- “I am broke/I am open/I am broke open” -- she is not among the more assured coeds, presumably seniors, but hangs out with Laura (Pernell Walker, like Oduye coming from the short version), already out as a butch and, estranged from their parents, living with her sister.
The woman-child must find and forge an identity, who she is not only as black and lesbian, but as a whole. The growth process is enlarged beyond race- and gender-specific by a not uncommon home situation, shared with sister Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse, also in the 2007 film), who idolizes her but, younger and weaker, needs her sheltering love. The handsome parents lead a bickering coexistence which has the two daughters treading on eggshells. Mother Audrey’s (Kim Wayans) Bible, straight-laced tastes and inability to recognize her elder daughter’s incipient adulthood, have alienated seething father Arthur (Charles Parnell), whose overtime policeman’s hours provide money for the four of them but also thinly cover his other woman on the side.
Neither mother nor father will unbend, and the barely bottled antagonism keeps them at arm’s length as well from the daughters they love but don’t know how to love. The climax will come when Lee summons, or is forced to, the courage to declare herself to her in-denial parents, for there thenceforth can be no turning back even if at least one of those parents attempts to accept and to soften the other’s image.
For that to happen however, the heroine must learn a lesson from first infatuation and its disappointments, which lead in this case to inner strength and decision.
The adolescents gather around the new Venus Club, although Arthur’s admonition about unsavory elements has his daughter coming home earlier than most. Obedient, too, in attending church with mother, she is ungracious and annoyed when introduced there to Bina (Aasha Davis), the daughter of a coworker. Encouraged to pal around together, Lee is resentful, but Bina counters her insults and proves to be fascinating -- and different. What begins as friendship and introduction to punk music becomes a crush on Lee’s part. The more experienced newcomer is ready for -- in fact, is the initiator of -- sexual experimentation but not for the relationship Lee wants.
Thrown back on her own, Lee cannot go home again but only onward along the path to freedom.
The film’s teentalk grows more decipherable as it goes along. Spotty sound and dark jumpy camerawork, on the other hand, become a distraction, though in their defense they are more integral than the lush color of this year’s similar-themed, also Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab, Circumstance. The latter takes place in openly repressive Tehrān, Pariah in less openly so New York family life. With wider, or at least closer-to-home, terrain, it is American in that our history and art have been a search for identity, a defining of the new man or new woman in New World freedom.
(Released by Focus Features and rated “R” for sexual content and language.)