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London Film Festival: Pariah - Review

Pariah

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

WRITER-director Dee Rees has already won widespread acclaim for her short film of the same name following its debut at the 2008 BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival and she looks set to win a whole lot more for her expanded feature.

A semi-autobiographical tale, Pariah follows the fortunes of a straight-A New York student named Alike (Adepero Oduye) who is struggling to come to terms with her lesbianism.

While her bolder and more worldly friend tries to help her get a date, her over-protective parents react with denial and disgust at their daughter’s emerging sexuality, causing a lot of stress and heartbreak for Alike as she comes of age.

Rees’ film has a raw immediacy that expertly captures middle class Brooklyn, while handling its complex issues in a highly sensitive fashion. There’s nothing sensational in its depiction of lesbianism, while Rees ensures that the emotions at play come first and foremost in the grand scheme of things.

She’s also well served by a great cast of relative unknowns, with Oduye outstanding as Alike – an appealing mix of quiet determination, sexual confusion and hurt. Her awkward first steps towards understanding and accepting her sexuality are brilliantly realised and brazenly authentic.

But she’s ably supported by the likes of Pernell Walker, as her best friend, and Aasha Davis, as a potential love interest. Better still are Charles Parnell and Kim Wayans as her parents – the former, a dedicated cop who has grown tired of his wife’s brow-beating and who offers Alike her best hope of acceptance, and the latter a complicated mix of frustrated housewife and disgusted religious bigot.

The scenes in Alike’s household positively brim with tension but also give rise to some tender moments, particularly between father and daughter late on as the former attempts to cast his own fear and prejudices aside.

Rees also deserves credit for ensuring that the issues never become heavy-handed or overly manipulated. Rather, her screenplay is alive with as much wit as it is soul-searching, while there’s no pat conclusion even though the finale leaves you feeling empowered no matter what your sexual persuasion.

Indeed, the highest compliment that can be paid to Pariah is that it plays so well as a drama to all ages and persuasions without the need for preaching or dumbing down its issues.

Coupled with the urgent nature of the way it’s shot, and the beautiful cinematography from Bradford Young (which has already been recognised with a Sundance award), it’s a small film that has something big to say that deserves to find a wide audience.

Certificate: tbc
Running time: 86mins
London Film Festival Premiere: October 14, 2011
UK Release Date: tbc