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Currently in its fifth month, Videology’s Independent Women is a monthly screening series bringing you underrated, overlooked, “Why haven’t I seen this?!” films directed by women. This month, they’re bringing you the critically-acclaimed, Sundance feature, Pariah.

Growing up in New York City, 17-year-old Alike, attempts to navigate her lesbian sexuality, while grappling with a disapproving mother and the throes of first love. This nuanced plot of Dee Rees’ semi-autobiographical feature debut, Pariah, has helped the film garner immensely positive reviews, contributing not only, to the LGBT film cannon, but to the coming-of-age genre, as well. Initially created as a short for Rees’s graduate film thesis at NYU, Pariah made the rounds at more than 40 film festivals around the world, winning numerous awards. Under Spike Lee’s (the film’s executive producer) mentorship, Rees created the feature-length film, Pariah, which premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film where it won the award for Excellence in Cinematography.

Pariah takes place almost exclusively in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Fort Greene and the film opens with the title’s dictionary definition: “A person without status. A rejected member of society. An outcast.” Alike is a straight-A student with a passion for writing. She is raised by Audrey, her rigid churchgoing mother and Arthur, her affectionate, yet distant policeman father. She also shares her room with her younger sister, Sharonda. The family dynamic is one that many teens coming to terms with their identities can easily relate to. From the start of Pariah, it’s pretty clear that both parents know that Alike is gay, but they never acknowledge it, believing it’s a phase that she will outgrow or it’s the other parent’s fault. It in turn, creates a mood of denial and pent-up resentment, just waiting to burst at the film’s climax. On the other hand, Sharonda accepts her older sister’s sexuality, giving a touch of levity in the otherwise intense family scene—an example being her amused, but not condescending, reaction as she walks in on Alike trying on a strap on dildo in their bedroom.

Alike’s best friend, Laura, is more grounded in her homosexuality, which has caused her family to reject her. In an attempt to help Alike develop her identity, Laura brings her to a nearby lesbian club, where Alike, shyly observant, feels out of place. The most painfully real moments in the film are when she goes through wardrobe adjustments between home and the outside world, in order to play the role of the feminine daughter and the stereotyped lesbian. This role play is familiar to anyone who has ever tried to balance their own sense of self with their parents’ approval, emphasizing the film’s placement in the coming-of-age genre.

Pariah is not necessarily a coming-out story, as homosexuality is far from unknown (except in actual practice) for Alike. Instead, the film is about the painful awkwardness of growing up. Part of movies greatness comes from Rees’ ability to depict how Alike’s utterly specific circumstances are pretty universal. She is a girl stuck between two versions of herself. She is neither what people want her to be, nor is she who she wants to be (yet), which is essentially, adolescence in a nutshell. Much like her peers, her identity is channeled through her chameleon-like style, seeking the right look that will authentically represent her. In many ways, it’s not Alike who is coming to terms with being a lesbian, it’s her family and the world that is coming to terms with it.  

What helps make Pariah so alive is Bradford Young’s (ArrivalAin’t Them Bodies Saints) truly outstanding cinematography (he also shot the original short). His camera favors unbroken intimacy between the film’s characters by using tight close-ups in sharp focus so the background lights just melt in undistinguished patterns, giving the film a timeless and slightly retro feel.The audience wouldn’t actually know that Pariah is set in New York, except for the film’s final scenes. The cinematography grows clearer and clearer as Alike’s resolution does, too.

The most powerful moment comes at the end when Alike explains: “Dad, I’m not running. I’m choosing.” She’s decided that she’s no longer running and trying to fit in; and while her dad is hurt, but seems to ultimately understand, her mother returns Alike’s “I said I love you” with an icy “I’ll be praying for you.” Alike then shares an incredible poem (written by Rees herself) with her teacher, Mrs. Alvarado, before leaving for good:

Heartbreak opens onto the sunrise
For even breaking is opening
And I am broken
I’m open
Broken to the new light without pushing in
Open to the possibilities within, pushing out
See the love shine in through my cracks?
See the light shine out through me?
I  am broken
I am open
I am broken open
See the love light shining through me
Shining through my cracks
Through the gaps
My spirit takes journey
My spirit takes flight
Could not have risen otherwise
And I am not running
I’m choosing
Running is not a choice from the breaking
Breaking is freeing
Broken is freedom
I am not broken
I’m free.

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