Few things are as resistant to upset as the apple cart of parental expectation. And for some middle-class families, coming to terms with a child’s gayness can qualify as a threat to deeply entrenched values.
But what about the gay child? What’s life like for him or her in a household ruled by denial? And what if that child happens to be black?
That’s more or less the question answered by Pariah, a powerful and affecting drama that centers on Alike (Adepero Oduye), a gay, self-aware high school student who’s still got one foot in the closet.
Alike’s dad (Charles Parnell) is a cop; her mom (Kim Wayans) looks for solace at church and suspects that her husband might be having an affair. Neither parent is prepared to deal with the sexuality of a straight daughter – much less a gay one.
For her part, Alike (pronounced All-Lee-Keh), endures a tense existence with her parents and her younger sister (Sahra Mellesse) in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn.
A good student and budding writer, Alike tries to hold her world together. It’s not easy. She changes clothes when she leaves the house, donning a kind of genderless Hip-Hop look, sometimes hanging out at a gay club.
Oduye does lots of things well, including capturing Alike’s pain and the intensity with which she assess every situation in which she finds herself. Oduye’s playing a character who’s not fully formed and can’t be until her truth is acknowledged – particularly by a father who insists she’s “normal” and a mother who has enough suspicions about her daughter that she wants her husband to intervene.
Dad resists, and after a conversation in which Alike tries to talk to him about love, he concludes that she must have a boyfriend.
You’ll appreciate Oduye’s deeply felt performance even more if you know that she’s a 33-year-old actress; she obviously hasn’t forgotten that at 17, emotional setbacks tend to hurt more than they will in later life.
At one point, Alike’s mother pushes her daughter into a friendship with “good girl” Bina (Aasha Davis). This relationship – which is supposed to steer Alike away from the bad influence of the openly gay Laura (Pernell Walker) – becomes pivotal for Alike in unexpected ways.
As often seems to be the case these days, the adults in Pariah live in a totally different world than their children. Mom and Dad have worked hard to attain and maintain a middle-class lifestyle, which means they also embrace the kind of convention that makes it difficult for them to accept a gay daughter.
Director Dee Rees, who also wrote the screenplay, tends to work in a style that includes lots of close-ups. Cinematographer Bradford Young uses them to make us understand the claustrophobic nature of a world that has yet to open for Alike.
An end-of-picture plot twist may resolve things for Alike too conveniently, but Rees has made a movie that’s open-ended enough to make us wonder what all its characters might be like a year from the time the final credits roll. You'll find the expected coming-of-age triumph here, but it’s tempered by Rees’ knowledge that not all the wounds we’ve seen opened are likely to heal.