The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The extraordinary Adepero Oduye, star of Pariah.

It's always exciting when a filmmaker with a fresh voice bursts onto the scene. Dee Rees does this in a big, big way with her debut full-length feature, Pariah. Like a lot of low-budget indies, a few rough edges show; but also like a lot of indies, the film radiates storytelling passion.

Adepero Oduye (Half Nelson) stars as Alike (pronounced Ah-lee-kay), a Brooklyn teenager who, like most adolescents, is trying to find herself. That means coming to terms with her homosexuality. She knows she's gay, and she has a close friendship with a more comfortably “out” friend named Laura (Pernell Walker) that inspires her. Alike's parents – mom Audrey (Kim Wayans) and dad Arthur (Charles Parnell) – are in denial about her sexuality. Arthur doesn't want to acknowledge it, yet will have words with anyone who makes a homophobic remark. Audrey, on the other hand, thinks she can course-correct Alike. She does this by pushing her daughter away from Laura and toward a co-worker's daughter, Bina (Aasha Davis), who she hopes will be a positive (i.e. straight) influence. Alike is who she is, though, and in order to stay true to herself, she has to find the strength to face her parents' disapproval.

What I love most about Pariah is the way it fully develops its heroine. Rees (who also wrote the screenplay) really focuses on Alike's individuality. Her journey is compelling because we come to understand how she functions in her world, how she relates to those around her, and how she struggles to be true to herself in light of opposition. In other words, rather than telling us about her developing self-acceptance, the film allows us to see it for ourselves. There's a wonderful fly-on-the-wall quality to the movie that makes it feel authentic – and which also makes it identifiable no matter what your sexuality is. Alike may be gay, but Pariah is universal; if you've ever felt different as an adolescent, or felt that your parents didn't approve of your true self, you'll probably relate to what she's going through.

There is a star-making performance here from Adepero Oduye, who is a charismatic and winning young actress. She perfectly registers every adolescent emotion: angst, insecurity, desire, rejection, ambition and, eventually, confidence. You never catch Oduye acting; everything about her performance feels sincere. Her scenes with Kim Wayans are among the most powerful in the movie. Who doesn't want their parents' approval? It crushes Alike that Audrey is so reluctant to accept her unconditionally. Oduye and Wayans make the moments between their characters heartbreaking. What an amazing role for Kim Wayans. She, of course, is best known for doing comedy. With Pariah, she displays a range that no one has ever given her the opportunity to show before. Audrey could easily have been a stock villain. In Wayans' hands, though, she becomes a woman who, tragically, can't get beyond her own feelings. That she is deeply wounding her daughter is secondary to the fact that Alike's sexuality makes her feel uncomfortable. The mother/daughter relationship depicted here is one of the most gripping of any I've seen on screen recently.

In addition to great acting, Pariah also offers a vibrant feel. Rees makes the settings come alive, whether its a party under the Brooklyn bridge, a bonding session in Bina's bedroom, or a confrontation in a shop. The way the movie captures Alike's surroundings helps bring the intimacy of her struggle to life. The camerawork, editing, and production design all make strong contributions toward this end.

At times, Pariah tends to hit the nail on the head a little too hard. Certain scenes are clearly designed to illustrate a point, and on occasion, those scenes veer a bit too far toward obviousness or overtness. In a story like this, subtlety is usually preferable. That's a small complaint, though. Generally speaking, there is much heart in the film, and more than a little truth about both the nature of conditional parental love and the vital need to feel comfortable in one's own skin. Pariah heralds the arrival of two major talents: Dee Rees and Adepero Oduye. It's also an example of what makes indie filmmaking great: deeply personal storytelling done with enormous conviction.

( 1/2 out of four)

Pariah is rated R for sexual content and language. The running time is 1 hour and 26 minutes.

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