Pariah is an admirable debut feature from writer-director Dee Rees that ultimately falters because of its problematic visual approach. While Bradford Young’s super-saturated cinematography has finesse, the dreamlike imagery unsuccessfully contrasts Pariah’s material and direction. With Rees adopting the sort of jarring camera movements found in the slice-of-life films of the Dardenne brothers, Pariah could have benefited from a grittier visual palette to realize her story. Given that the film deals in some rather murky emotional waters, the visual approach simply becomes distracting and at times nauseating.
The divisive look of the film is only highlighted by lead actress Adepero Oduye’s naturalistic performance. As Alike, Oduye offers an intriguing range of mood, wherein her sexuality is both the topic of turmoil (amongst her parents) and beauty (for her poetry). Unlike films of this nature, Alike knows who she is, in so much that her sexuality is clearly defined. She has yet to be kissed, but is eager to explore. This becomes problematic when her mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans), questions her dress and friends. The conflict between mother and daughter, and the overarching sense of acceptance, is Pariah’s strength and subsequent narrative weakness. Pariah’s narrative utilizes Audrey as a fairly broad religious character without delving much deeper than that. While her character humorously instigates Alike’s first lesbian encounter, Audrey functions as the film’s true pariah, in so much that her judgmental nature makes her the outsider. This becomes particularly problematic given that the film’s core message attempts to address the concept of acceptance, yet broadly paints Audrey as nothing more than a bitch. Her character remains that stagnant image from beginning to end and offers no backdrop for her incessant nature.
Admirably, Pariah, which was developed from Rees’ short film, manages to adopt a vignette style of storytelling. The film moves at a brisk pace, as the narrative unfolds in cycles, where Alike explores her sexuality. Side stories of Alike’s experience wearing a strap-on or spending time with her father seem like part of a different narrative thread, though unite as a collage of Alike’s rite of passage into adulthood.
Pariah obviously had its individual components that I liked, but on the whole, the picture didn’t come together. It’s particularly due to Rees’ jarring direction, which took me out of the experience. Coming out of the picture, I was left most impressed with Adepero Oduye’s performance. Her genuine expressions resonated throughout the film’s inundated direction – an accomplishment all in its own.