“How many numbers you got?” Alike (Adepero Oduye) and Laura (Pernell Walker) sit on a curb, red and green traffic lights blurred in a background that seems miles away. The moment is brief and peaceful. They’ve just come from inside a Brooklyn club where the light was red, the music pulsing, and too many shots showed girls on poles. Alike didn’t get numbers this time, and Laura reminds her why they’ve come: “You need to pop that damn cherry. That’s what you need to do.” Alike has heard this before. She smiles.
And then Pariah cuts to the girls on a city bus, where the light is changed to pale institutional green. Their evening’s adventures done, they look tired, and without her baseball cap, Laura’s hair is loose and soft. When Laura gets off at her stop, Alike begins her own transformation, removing her cap and boy’s shirt, putting on her earrings. By the time she enters her home and tries to sneak inside, her little sister Sharonda (Sahra Mallesse) catches her: “Where you been this late?” she asks. When Alike suggests she’s been at “the movies,” Sharonda doesn’t begin to believe her: “I know what stays open past midnight,” she says, sly and triumphant at once. Alike pushes past her and heads to her room, but not before Sharonda alerts their mother Audrey (Kim Wayans) by calling her sister’s name.
“Li?” Audrey arrives instantly at her 17-year-old daughter’s bedroom door, chiding her, “Nice to know you still live here.” Following the contest between the sisters, these first moments between mother and daughter reveal where Pariah is headed, the test of wills and also the lie consuming the girl and shaping her mom’s willful blindness. “I lost track of time,” says Alike as the camera cuts to Audrey, her face stern and framed by pink hallway light as she pronounces, “You know what time your curfew is.” They both know what the other’s not saying, but they maintain their silence. If they don’t exactly face off — because Alike won’t look at Audrey — their dance is perfectly timed, as each has practiced her steps before. When Audrey tries to smooth over the confrontation by approving her daughter’s “feminine” shirt (one that “compliments your figure”), Alike resists anyway, unable to agree to the truce. Audrey’s next move is predictable: “I don’t like that young lady you’re running around with.”
Indeed, “that young lady” is exactly what Audrey fears most. Out and paying for it, Laura has dropped out of school, been kicked out of her mother’s home, and moved in with her sister. In her own predictable move, Laura dominates in her relationship with Alike (whose admiration is the one good constant in her life), the only way she can see to hold onto it. By contrast, Alike’s living in a middle-class home (however fractured) and delivers to expectations, at least partly. That is, she’s an A student but still, pretending. Arriving at school in an outfit her mother approves, Alike goes directly to the bathroom, where she reverses the act, donning her boy’s clothes before she sits alone in class or bears up under taunts in the hallway.
During lunch break, she visits with a favorite English teacher, Mrs. Alvarado (Zabryna Guevara). After a minute of teasing — the teacher suggests Alike should eat something other than chocolate chip cookies — they get down to business, when Alike hands over her journal. Mrs. Alvarado leafs through the latest pages as Alike looks on, expectant until the verdict, that these new poems are “lovely,” technically proficient as she already must know, but they’re only “okay, not great.” Alike can’t hide her disappointment as Mrs. Alvarado chomps on her celery stick: “You can go deeper.”
Such expectation frames Dee Rees’ first feature too. Groundbreaking as it may be, full of striking, saturated-color compositions and aptly showcasing Oduye’s remarkable performance, Pariah can’t possibly fulfill all hopes. Appearing repeatedly in significant close-ups, Oduye conveys Alike’s desires and doubts, as well as the many kinds of weight she carries, as a girl in Brooklyn and a character in a movie that needs to do too much.
This weight takes the form of gender as much as sex, as Alike sorts through what it means to embody either and both. At Laura’s suggestion, she tries on a dildo for a night at the club, imagining the bulge might attract some girl with a number to give. The pretense is a bust, the prosthetic so uncomfortable that Alike can’t keep from scratching at it, and the film makes its point too plainly, that faking isn’t Alike’s best option.
That’s not to say others around her don’t find solace and even some strength in dissembling, even if — the film hints — they don’t know that’s what they’re doing. Their many pretenses and expectations form a complicated set of mostly predictable obstacles for Alike, each a plot in itself and each illustrating how hard it is for her to come out. Apart from her religious mother (who insists, “I know God doesn’t make mistakes,” and also that Alike spend time with a fellow churchgoer’s daughter, Bina [Aasha Davis]) and traditional father, Arthur (a cop, played by Charles Parnell, who keeps late hours and a girlfriend), Alike faces Laura’s jealousy and a first love and earth-shaking disappointment, as well as her ongoing sense of isolation and worry.
But still, amid this thicket of clichés, Pariah finds something else. Alike’s own experience is more nuanced than the situations she’s in, whether she’s negotiating with Sharonda not to tell about the dildo she’s seen (“That’s nasty!”) or learning to drive with her dad, whom she knows is cheating but whom she also loves absolutely. If she can be open with her sister, because she’s been found out, she can’t possibly tell Arthur what she’s feeling, as she knows neither he nor Audrey can begin to understand, let alone accept her.
The film reveals and examines this youthful, delicate, and profound knowledge, without Alike having to explain it to you. She’s both like and unlike other gay teens in movies, at once too self-aware, too hopeful, and too prepared for what seems inevitable disaster. If the plot points pile on, and if the film seems sometimes appears to include every aspect of this difficult experience, as it has been lived by too many individuals, so differently, it does attend to Alike’s details with sensitivity and nuance. Her coming out story is at once too typical and her own, as she makes her way through the movie and through the representational burden she bears.