Alike lives with her parents and her younger sister Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse), who knows that Alike is a lesbian but keeps it a secret. She has a close relationship with her father Arthur (Charles Parnell) but still fears him finding out about her sexuality. Her relationship with her mother Audrey (Kim Wayans) is hanging on by a thread, as Audrey fears that her daughter is hanging out with the wrong people — namely Laura (Pernell Walker), a butch lesbian who is Alike’s best friend.
In an effort to draw Alike away from Laura, Audrey—who more or less knows her daughter is gay but does her best to ignore it—forces Alike to hang out with Bina (Aasha Davis), a girl from their church. As the two begin to spend more time together, Alike develops feelings for Bina, which leads to distance between her and Laura.
Despite spending time with Bina, tensions between Alike and her mother grow; they’re a ticking time bomb, and much of the film is spent in suspense, waiting for things to blow up between the two. A beautiful first feature from Dee Rees and modeled after her 2007 short film of the same name, Pariah tells a powerful, mesmerizing, and unflinchingly honest story of identity.
Pariah draws the audience in as soon as it starts, beginning with the quote, “Wherever the bird with no feet flew, she found trees with no limbs.” The film centers on this theme and follows Alike as she struggles to reconcile her identities with one another, never quite finding the freedom and stability that she longs for. Alike is a poet and a straight-A student and spends her nights with Laura, often frequenting lesbian bars.
The film opens with a flashy nightclub where Alike, who has yet to have her first kiss, watches dancers on stage with Laura. This sequence is intense and grabs the audience’s attention quickly—only to be followed by a more gentle, mellow scene of Alike and Laura taking the bus home. The film follows this pattern throughout, switching between moments where you can hardly breathe and moments where you can finally relax. It does so seamlessly, and there isn’t a moment in the film where it feels appropriate to look away. Pariah demands your full attention and never lets go.
Pariah does a brilliant job with quick changes between intensity and modesty. Some moments (especially later on in the film) can be hard to watch, yet they are surrounded by moments of peace and tranquility that keep you entranced. The movie cannot exist without these moments, and the delicate balance Pariah maintains makes for a beautiful but difficult film. Every second of Pariah feels vital and important, like the film couldn’t exist without it.
The story is driven by Alike and her relationships with various people in her life, namely Laura, her family, and Bina. Her relationship with the latter is the perfect coming of age romance—until it isn’t. Though things between Alike and Bina blossom, culminating in a shared night together, Bina later brushes Alike off; she’s not gay gay, as she says, though it’s never clear if this is completely true.
For Alike, though, this relationship was formative, and she is left crushed in its aftermath. At its heart, this is a story of multiple identities, all trying to work together but never quite succeeding. Though Alike finally reconciles her identities in the end, Pariah shows that, though it is possible to do so, the path there is never easy.
Aside from the directing, Pariah also stands out for its talented cast and breathtaking cinematography. Rees puts a spotlight on Black talent in this film; the entire cast and the majority of the crew are Back, which is a vital part of the world of the movie.
The talent in this movie is endless, Oduye's performance is brilliant and commanding. The film rests on her shoulders, and she delivers over and over again, cementing herself as a powerful performer. The cinematography is breathtakingly done by Bradford Young, who makes every scene, even the hard ones, beautiful. The film is short—just under an hour and a half—but nothing feels rushed about it, and everything that needs to be said is said.
Pariah stands out as one of the most powerful, heartbreaking, and important coming of age movies in a long time. In the end, despite what Alike has gone through, all hope is not lost. The bird finally finds the limbs it so longed to land on.
(This article was originally posted by Marisa Jones on Medium.)