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Family Movie Review: Pariah (R)

She wanted people to understand what it was like embracing her identity as a lesbian, how it felt to tell her parents, the struggle involved in learning more about who she was. So she wrote “Pariah,” and she wrote “from the heart,” she said in an interview with Chesapeake Family.

“It’s OK to not check a box,” Rees said of the point of “Pariah,” a somewhat autobiographical adaptation of her life. “[You] don’t have to conform to what people expect [you] to be.”

In “Pariah,” 17-year-old black teen Alike (Adepero Oduye) is working to understand just what those varied expectations are. To her mother Audrey (Kim Wayans), she’s still a young girl, the kind who would wear glittery T-shirts and hang out with Audrey after school. To her father Arthur (Charles Parnell), she’s his wisecracking basketball player, a go-getter who yearns to be around her dad. And to best friend Laura (Pernell Walker), an open lesbian, Alike is someone to be groomed and finessed, encouraged to accept her own sexuality.

Alike is all those things, and somehow none of them. She cares about her mother, but Audrey’s overwhelming religiousness, raging homophobia and hatred of Laura is certainly a problem. She loves her father, but Arthur’s secrets and possible infidelity is hurting Audrey, who in turn takes her anger out on Alike. And she appreciates Laura’s friendship, but isn’t sure Laura’s masculine look and lifestyle choice will work for her. Alike is only truly herself through her writing and poetry, which make her a shining beacon of hope for the teachers in her high school—and draws in classmate Bina (Aasha Davis).

As Alike and Bina grow closer, their burgeoning relationship begins to disrupt everything about Alike’s life. Her mother becomes more suspicious of her late hours. Her father begins to realize he can’t keep turning a blind eye. And Laura, so used to Alike needing her guidance, starts to think maybe Alike’s growing independence will tear their friendship apart. Pulled in so many different directions, torn between what she wants and what others want for her, Alike realizes her journey must turn inward in a painful, life-changing way.

Getting the film made, of course, wasn’t easy, Rees said. Producer Nekisa Cooper told Chesapeake Family that many financiers told her and Rees “the story was too small and specific to warrant investment.” Advised numerous times that the movie could get funded if it was “just black or just gay,” Rees and Cooper didn’t give up. “I want to be careful about being reductive,” Cooper said. They certainly didn’t want the film to end up being, as Rees said, “a hip-hop hood sex movie.” “There’s nuance and complexity, even within these subcultures,” Cooper noted, and they worked to make sure “Pariah” had a believable, honest level of emotional depth.

Most of that burden is carried by Oduye and Wayans, the former a young actress in her first major role and the latter more well known for her comedy than dramatic turns. But the tempestuous relationship they portray onscreen makes each sympathetic: Wayans’ Audrey is “misguided, but coming from a place of love,” the actress told Chesapeake Family. Her cruel words toward her daughter are unbelievably impactful, but sadly understandable. Pushed against a wall by her possibly cheating husband and feeling lied to by her secretive daughter, Audrey is coming to understand that Alike “doesn’t have to live to please her mother,” Rees notes. And, of course, she doesn’t like it.

But Alike isn’t really happy, either, and as the conflicted teen, Oduye is pretty much perfect. She’s subtle enough to convey numerous emotions in one scene—yearning for affection, a longing sadness—but is steely, too. She never shows any self doubt, clear in her convictions about wanting to embrace her sexual identity. How she’ll do that is what needs figuring out, but her decision to want to is never in question.

“It’s OK to embark on a journey to figure out who we are. It’s all about love, and it’s all about love for yourself,” Oduye said of Alike’s struggle, and of course that’s the clearest message to take away from “Pariah.” Kudos to Rees, Cooper and everyone else involved: They’ve done a great job conveying it.

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