Few things are as resistant to upset as the apple cart of parental expectation. And for some middle-class families, coming to terms with a child’s gayness can qualify as a threat to deeply entrenched values.
But what about the gay child? What’s life like for him or her in a household ruled by denial? And what if that child happens to be black?
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
That’s more or less the question answered by Pariah, a powerful and affecting drama that centers on Alike (Adepero Oduye), a gay, self-aware high school student who’s still got one foot in the closet.
Alike’s dad (Charles Parnell) is a cop; her mom (Kim Wayans) looks for solace at church and suspects that her husband might be having an affair. Neither parent is prepared to deal with the sexuality of a straight daughter — much less a gay one.
For her part, Alike (pronounced All-LEE-Kay), endures a tense existence with her parents and her younger sister (Sahra Mellesse) in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn.
A good student and budding writer, Alike tries to hold her world together. It’s not easy. She changes clothes when she leaves the house, donning a kind of genderless Hip-Hop look, sometimes hanging out at a gay club.
Oduye does lots of things well, including capturing Alike’s pain and the intensity with which she assess every situation in which she finds herself. Oduye’s playing a character who’s not fully formed and can’t be until her truth is acknowledged — particularly by a father who insists she’s “normal” and a mother who has enough suspicions about her daughter that she wants her husband to intervene.
Dad resists, and after a conversation in which Alike tries to talk to him about love, he concludes that she must have a boyfriend.
You’ll appreciate Oduye’s deeply felt performance even more if you know that she’s a 33-year-old actress; she obviously hasn’t forgotten that at 17, emotional setbacks tend to hurt more than they will in later life.
At one point, Alike’s mother pushes her daughter into a friendship with “good girl” Bina (Aasha Davis). This relationship — which is supposed to steer Alike away from the bad influence of the openly gay Laura (Pernell Walker) — becomes pivotal for Alike in unexpected ways.
As often seems to be the case these days, the adults in Pariah live in a totally different world than their children. Mom and Dad have worked hard to attain and maintain a middle-class lifestyle, which means they also embrace the kind of convention that makes it difficult for them to accept a gay daughter.
Director Dee Rees, who also wrote the screenplay, tends to work in a style that includes lots of close-ups. Cinematographer Bradford Young uses them to make us understand the claustrophobic nature of a world that has yet to open for Alike.
An end-of-picture plot twist may resolve things for Alike too conveniently, but Rees has made a movie that’s open-ended enough to make us wonder what all its characters might be like a year from the time the final credits roll. You’ll find the expected coming-of-age triumph here, but it’s tempered by Rees’ knowledge that not all the wounds we’ve seen opened are likely to heal.