Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 14, 2011 3:44 am 
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Gay soul sister comes of age

"If Aliki, a sassy 17-year-old New Yorker, knows anything it’s that she’s gay and she badly wants a girlfriend," the blurb of this movie starts out. "However, there’s a problem— her middle-class Brooklyn family," her macho dad and her religious mom.

Dee Rees' semi-autobiographical first film is a young black lesbian's breezy, fast-moving New York coming-of-age story. This is a brightly colored, appealing, ultimately upbeat little film that fills a welcome niche. There are plenty of white male gay coming of age films (two of the best of them Edge of Seventeen and Get Real), but the LGBT audience has not had many about black girls who considered suicide when a girlfriend was enuf. Actually Aliki, who most people call Li, is too strong a girl to consider suicide.

The word "pariah" is a bit misleading. At school, Alika's orientation is perfectly cool. In fact when some fine young ladies talk about her, it turns out one of them finds her attractive. And she changes into butch attire that she wears at school, and switches back into earrings and combed out hair and takes off the baseball cap when she returns home.

As the story begins, Aliki (a very convincing and warm Adepero Oduye), is a 17-year-old who gets taken to lesbian clubs by her older butch best girl friend Laura (Pernell Walker). Aliki does dearly want to find a girlfriend to give her her first girl-to-girl kiss and become her first lover. But she's too bashful and uncomfortable with the overt song lyrics she hears and overly role-defined styles on display at the clubs to seek that girlfriend there. Meanwhile at school -- the camera using indirection to show her eavesdropping as well as switching outfits -- Li sees the delicious girls who might be interested -- and also might not be the kind you meet at clubs. Meanwhile her uptight, over-stressed mother Audrey (Kim Wayans) is buying her feminine sweaters and complaining about the way she dresses. Obviously Audrey knows what is going on, but just can't accept it.

In the course of the movie Aliki experiences heartbreak both at home and out -- and comes out at home with the usual difficulty. Audrey objects to the dyke-like Laura in no uncertain terms. She turns her away rudely when she comes to the door. Instead she foists a classmate whose mother she works with on Aliki as someone to walk to and from school with. This is Bina (Aasha Davis), who turns out to know where Aliki's coming from. But when Bina kisses Aliki, she jumps away at first. Later Li has a night to remember with her new friend -- only to be rejected the next morning and told it was only playing around. Li runs to Laura -- who was hurt by being left out of the loop and rebuffs her. Meanwhile Li's mom and her cop dad Arthur (Charles Parnell) are constantly fighting. Arthur's pretense of working double-time is beginning to be an obvious cover for a double life. Aliki's only solution is to escape from home, and she gets early college admission on the West Coast through her writing talents -- the usual bittersweet happy ending of coming of age tales.

Rees does not entirely steer clear of cliche or of routine exposition; this may have been a little too self-consciously a Sundance Workshop project at times. There are some unnecessary or too-generic student-teacher moments, there's a bit too much of the fighting parents, and the hand-held camera swings back and forth a bit too much in closeups of conversations. But the look of the film is still a pleasure, especially the color filters for several key moments, through Bradford Young's rich use of 35mm and the costuming, ranging from Laura's and Li's butch outfits to the stylish many-colored gear worn by Bina that expands Aliki's world into something more expressive and gender-complex. Beyond the warm, lively look, above all the scenes of the young women are acted with refreshing naturalness. Cornell grad Odepero Oduye has been hailed as a breakout star.

Debuted at Sundance January 2011, Pariah has been picked up by Focus Features. Seen and reviewed as part of the New Directors/New Films series presented from March 23 through April 4, 2011 by MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York.

ND/NF showtimes and locations:
Sat Mar 26: 8:00 pm FSLC
Mon Mar 28: 9:00 pm - MoMA

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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