I’ve been looking forward to the film Pariah ever since I first saw the trailer at BAM this summer (and subsequently blogged about its uncannily consistent juxtaposition with the trailer for Gun Hill Road). I even mentioned this state of heightened anticipation while seated near James Schamus at one of the several formal meals that we enjoyed together while he was at Carleton last term; when he overheard my comment, he interjected with something to the effect of “THIS FILM IS SO GOOD! YOU ARE GOING TO LOVE IT.” Which, even coming from the guy who runs the company that produced the film (Focus Features), struck me as totally genuine and basically made me even more excited for the release of the film this past December (if that had been possible…).
So: on Friday night, thanks to Carleton’s Metro Arts Access Fund and the efforts of Sarah Berlin (Sarah: you rock.), I was at long last able to see Pariah. For those of you who don’t frequent Autostraddle (or similarly queer-ish online publications) and have therefore missed the ongoing hype about the film, the basic premise centers on the coming-of-age of Alike, a black lesbian teenager in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, who excels at school and expresses herself through poetry, wants to find a girlfriend ASAP, and isn’t exactly out to her parents. Familial clashes ensue over time spent with her openly lesbian best friend, Laura, and her mother, played with surprising sobriety by Kim Wayans, decides that forcing her into acquaintance with a colleague’s daughter, Bina, will solve things. So of course a sleepover with Bina turns out to be Alike’s first romantic counter.
Pariah is director Dee Rees’ first feature, an expansion of her earlier short film, and it preserves so much of what won it the Audience Choice Award in 2007 at the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival: the great cinematography, the very Brooklyn feel of the mise-en-scene, the poignancy and rawness of the performances, especially that of star Adepero Oduye, the honesty of the storytelling, undoubtedly the openness and necessity of the story content in this day and age. But here’s my complaint: somehow, even expanded to 86 minutes, it still feels like a short film — the ending seems too soon, our glimpse into Alike’s coming of age too short, too easy. Perhaps this is because the temporality of the film is so fluid, that the final scenes and Alike’s preparation to leave for California and college come so quickly, but it feels as if the conflicts that were driving the film remain less than fully examined, or left to remain unresolved. And while this is frustrating to a viewer who wants more of any good queer cinema we can get, perhaps it also speaks to the lingering unspeakability of these questions of identity. Even with films like Weekend (dir. Andrew Haigh, streaming on Netflix NOW, run don’t walk to SEE THIS) and Pariah being released in 2011, queer cinema is still finding its voice, just like Alike and her poetry. But it is finding it, and with that, finding wider audiences — and I firmly believe that we can only expect more truthful, powerful, beautiful work to ‘come out’, as it were, as the decade progresses. Especially if I have anything to say about it.