Sundance Review: Striking 'Pariah' proves good gay cinema isn't dead yet
You may be able to take true independent gay cinema off life support now.
After almost a decade of disappointing and at times embarrassingly bad feature films that consistently descended into stereotypical cliches, independent gay cinema may be on something of an upswing. One of the first signs was last year's Sundance hit "The Kids Are All Right." Granted, while it was very low budget for Hollywood standards, the Oscar contending "Kids" still looked and felt like a studio film thanks to some famous faces in the fold. That is certainly not the case with Sundance Film Festival opening night selection "Pariah." Shot on a shoestring budget, Dee Rees' impressive drama proves there is a lot of powerful gay stories to be told in fresh and moving ways.
Based on a short film Rees originally premiered at Sundance in 2007, "Pariah" centers on Alike (an excellent Adepero Oduye), a 17-year-old Brooklyn girl who is struggling to find herself as a lesbian and, just as importantly, a young woman. She know's she's gay, but is she the more masculine, boyish dyke who hits the underage dance hip-hop dance clubs that her best friend Laura (Pernell Walker) wants her to be? Or, is she the more socially conscious hipster poet her new friend Bina (Aasha Davis) sees in her? These are the rarely depicted voices in America that Rees embraces as common place which is one of the reasons "Pariah" feels so special.
Then again, it's easy to pin this as Rees' first feature by some of the noticeable flaws in her screenplay. There are too many tangential storylines going on (Laura's arc is particularly too long) and the picture doesn't do a good job of explaining why Alike's mother (Kim Wayans) has such fear and hatred for her daughter being a lesbian. The audience has to assume it's because she goes to church (one casual scene used to set up another storyline), but a little more background would have helped. While Wayans is the most well known of the "Pariah" cast, she's also been provided the most cliche'd role and as much as she give it her all (and Wayans does have dramatic chops) she ends up being the weakest link in the film. It's the incredibly natural turns by the younger ladies that help overcome that major flaw. You believe these are girls still struggling to find themselves even if they are being played by actress much older than their characters. Outside of Oduye, Davis and Walker, Charles Parnell is particularly good as Alike's father -- a man who knows about his daughter, but has his own personal problems to deal with.
Rees also benefits from superior camera work by cinematographer Bradford Young. Like his director and many of the actors in the film, Young doesn't have any well known credits to his resume, but his incredible DV camera work in "Pariah" should be a great career calling card. Especially once other independent directors and producers see what he's done to make "Pariah" look as spectacularly un-digital as possible.
As for mainstream distribution, "Pariah" is likely looking toward a smaller independent distributor. Critical acclaim and possible jury prizes would really help seal the deal, but IFC or even Oscilloscope Laboratories should absolutely take a chance on it. It's niche, but it's a film that should do very well on the art house circuit, DVD and on demand. And, to be frank, it's been quite awhile since anyone has been able to say that about a gay film that didn't have a Hollywood star in the fold. And for that, we should all be thankful.