PARIAH: A Failed Hit Good Film:
6.5 ****** / 10***********
Reviewed by Poonam Srivastava, lesbian film critic in residence
Pariah is a movie that is causing quite the stir in Film World. Pariah takes us into the world of NYC A.G.s -- almost. The story centers on a budding A.G., Alike, who is played by a wonderful new talent in acting named Adepero Oduye. Alike is a high school student who is pursuing her identity as an A.G. (a term that means little to most of America) on the down low. Alike does not have the blessings of her family for this pursuit. The film’s arch is from the outing of Alike to herself and her family to the resulting banishment of Alike from the not-so-warm hearth of her family’s home and dining table.
The acting is excellent all around as we follow Alike from home to school to her friend, (portrayed so believably-A.G. by Pernell Walker) Laura’s apartment and then out to the “dangerous” bars with those “strange” women. Her father, a kind sort, warns her about those bars and women later in the film. Great visuals and camera work take us into the trials, and the tribulations, and teasing small victories -- such as when a hot girl in the school hallway says she would go with an A.G. within Alike’s ear-shot. However, very soon in Pariah, the writer/director/someone drops the focus from Alike’s identity as an A.G. (aggressive gent) and Pariah morphs from the tale of an A.G.’s coming of age to a lesbian coming of age story.
An A.G. is a particular type of lesbian. Just like spinach is a type of leaf. Even well versed lesbians such as my librarian friend don’t know off hand what an A.G. is. And the film fails – royally -- to answer this question or shed any real light. An A.G. is a butch, a very specific type of butch-lesbian. The film brings this out but not enough. The largely untapped character of Laura more than Alike actually represents what a self assured A.G. may be. Laura is Alike’s fast friend and also unwelcome by Alike’s mother at their house as that “strange girl.”
Laura lives a reality closer to that of most AGs and trans youth than Alike does in Pariah -- one of complete rejection (which is what Pariah means in the dictionary after all). When Laura receives her G.E.D. and travels to her mother’s home to share the news, we see true rejection. Laura takes on adult responsibilities to the sacrifice of her high school education.
The film does have lovely scenes that capture the lives of all A.G.s and all teens: changing outfits on the bus before returning home to look more girly, more appropriate, for the ‘rents (parents); trying on the dildo of the wrong color and wearing it uncomfortably for the first time. (“Well, I am NOT going back,” says the friend. “It was embarrassing enough to get it in the first place.”)
The dildo is white. The film is black. Pariah is a black film. For that it receives large kudos. To bring up homosexuality within the black culture is still a novelty. To do so in a respectful coming of age tale rather than as a caricature or as a punch line to some sub-plot’s joke is refreshing. Pariah holds no punches as the Mother’s Christianity comes face to face with fears of daughter’s eternal damnation, and the father’s Afro-centrism and slightly machismo concern for the safety of his first born is screened. (So many of us of non white queer identified people have had to deal with the argument that were it not for the decadent west, or white, or America, we’d be normal too.)
There was room in Pariah for a lot of great character development. It could have been presented through Alike. Instead, the audience suffers through what becomes almost a film with in the film on the tension and troubles between hard working father and decorum-obsessed mother. Focus is, again, shifted. Rejection? In fact the only member of the family that rejects Alike is the mother. She is a singularly angry woman who is determined to hold up appearances despite the wrongness she feels is in both her husband and her oldest child. The youngest child, Alike’s younger sister, Sharonda, played very well by Sahra Mellesse, lovingly teases Alike with true sibling roughness. But while the parents are fighting over Alike’s strangeness, Sharonda assures her older sis that: “It doesn’t matter to me that you are gay.”
These building tensions will result in a sort of tragedy. Tragic indeed, but sorry, much softer the tragedies most rejected, pariah, lesbian gay bisexual transgender youth face when thrust from the protection of their homes and families they were born into. Herein lies the major miss of this cutting edge film so well done on a low budget. It is too timid. Too soft where we who know A.G.s and pariah youth yearn for some real mirroring of their hard hard lives. The film finds a soft escape into the character of Bina, the good girl daughter of a friend of the Mother’s. The fact that the media is paying so much attention to the importance of this eventual intimacy and betrayal show’s the film’s failure to keep the A.G. issue front and center.
When Laura, the other A.G., expresses her own love and desires for Alike we are not surprised. However, Alike is already kissing up on Bina. What happens????? Go see the film. It is worth it. Visually. Good camera work. Great shots of the world in which our sweet budding A. G. lives. It’s just a shame that there was not more focus on the outer and inner worlds of Alike and Laura. That is something I wanted to see play out more.
At the end of the day, as the saying goes, does Pariah leave you knowing what the term A.G. means? In fact some reviews are defining A.G. aggressive girl. “A girl who is aggressive and okay with it.” (!?!) Does pariah give us the aggressive gent, butch lesbian? The answer is a solid resounding: NO.
I saw this film with the members of an LGBT youth group called New Alternatives located in Manhattan, NY. They were not impressed. Not enough noise in the sex scenes, not enough drama between the A.G.s. The trauma of having to leave your home for an early start to college as a promising writer is not exactly tragic to anyone nineteen or twenty years old that has already spent over five years on the streets. Yet they did enjoy the film.
So go see this movie. Visually worth it. Culturally important. And then go on and search out some A.G.s on your own. Be careful though, they might bite!
Director: Dee Rees
Writer: Dee Rees
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