Brooklyn teen “Alike” (aka Lee) struggles to find her voice as a writer & as a lesbian. Touching debut performance by Adepero Oduye, but what elevates this above a standard (albeit very well-done) “coming of age” story is Wayans–outstanding as mother “Audrey”–an African-American woman desperately trying to shape her family into an idealized image of middle class perfection. Click HERE for our FF2 haiku.
Her father calls her “Alike” (ah-LEE-kay); her mother calls her “Lee.” So how do I even begin to tell you about this character (the Brooklyn teen played by Adepero Oduye) without making a decision that favors one over the other?
All the way through Pariah, filmmaker Diandra (Dee) Rees dares us to take sides as this bright young woman, Alike/Lee, explores the mysteries of her own identity. And as if the fragmentation in her African-American background didn’t present enough problems, Alike/Lee has also realized she’s a lesbian, just one of the basic facts about their daughter that both parents reject.
In many ways the basic story is familiar. Embattled on all sides, Alike/Lee finds her anchor in “Mrs. Alvarado” (Zabryna Guevara), a teacher who inspires her, challenges her, and ultimately helps her break free and move on. Perhaps this reflects where I am in my own life right now, but as good as Adepero Oduye (Add-eh-pair-o Oh-due-yay) is, I just don’t find her story all that compelling. There’s just no question that, whatever the obstacles, this talented girl is going to make it.
The character who really stole my heart was Audrey, beautifully played by Kim Wayans. In Pariah, as in many “coming of age” films, the mother figure is a bit of a villain: Change your clothes! Brush your hair! Audrey is the enforcer whereas “Arthur” (Charles Parnell), the father figure, comes in and out of the domestic sphere at will. When he is home, he provides his daughter with lots of encouragement, but somehow he’s never really there when needed. Worse yet, when he is there, is he actually paying attention?
Audrey tries desperately to hold it all together, but she already knows she’s doomed. The middle class ideal she’s striving for has no chance of success, so why does she even have such an image in her head in the first place? Watching Alike/Lee at the start of her life, we’re filled with optimism, but watching Audrey in the middle of her life, we see more challenging obstacles. When I left the theater, I felt enormous concern for Audrey and I worried more for her future.
Rees is telling a very personal and deeply-felt story in her first feature, and it has a raw truth reminiscent of She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee’s first feature from way back in 1986. This is no accident. Rees is a graduate of NYU (Lee’s alma mater), she worked on two of Lee’s films early in her career (When the Levees Broke and feature Inside Man), and Lee is one of Pariah’s Executive Producers. That’s a lot to live up to, and Rees does. With this award-winning feature now in theatres, let’s hope Rees’ career has a Spike Lee-like trajectory and she gets plenty of new opportunities to shine.
Photo Credit: Jenny Baptiste/Focus Features