Illuminated by warm orange and pink lights, Dee Rees’ Pariah (2011) is an emotionally raw coming-of-age film about a queer Black teenager named Alike (Adepero Oduye), who comes from a conservative, dysfunctional family living in Brooklyn. Rees (best known for her work in Mudbound), the movie’s director-writer, takes us on Alike’s journey. She divides the film between Alike’s tense relationships with her mother, father, best friend, lover, and even mentor. With a short running time of 1 hour and 26 minutes, Pariah efficiently grows its protagonist with tenderness and empathy. Alike is multi-faceted—introverted, outspoken, timid, and powerful all at once.
Rather than reductive, the plot’s simplicity gives her space to bloom. The main dramatic tension of the film centers on whether or not Alike will come out to her family. It’s a tension that branches out to her family and friends, each of whom grapple with their own demons, like her mother Audrey (Kim Wayans), who grows suspicious about her husband’s nightly ventures, and best friend Laura (Pernell Walker), who struggles with making ends meet while living with her sister.
The movie’s concise structure makes room for subtext. Pariah is a movie that teaches you how to read between the lines. When the characters speak, their exchanges are replete with pauses. They almost never say what they mean, but you know what they mean. We see this most prominently in Alike’s conversation with her father Arthur (Charles Parnell). Alike interrupts her father during his phone call. Tensely, she tells her dad that it sounds like he’s probably going back to work based on his phone call though she’s on the brink of asking him whether or not he’s seeing another woman. As the conversation continues, Arthur gets a feel for whether or not his daughter is queer per his wife’s request, asking her if she’s familiar with a club but he never outright asks her. Punctuated moments like these where we have to read between the lines allow us to feel the intentionalities and rawness of the third act deeply.
Besides the excellent emotional pacing of its script, Pariah also looks gorgeous. It’s shot on an Arricam on 35 mm, which gives the film a beautiful grainy texture. Most of the scenes in the film take place in closed rooms or at night, which can be literally and figuratively dark. But the warm tungsten lights illuminate the night and make us feel safe, comforted. Unsurprisingly, the film won the Excellence in Cinematography Award at Sundance. Bradford Young served as the film’s Director of Photography, and you may know him for his work in Selma, Arrival, and the upcoming film, Solo: A Star Wars Story.
Pariah is strikingly intimate, drawing its viewers in with its quiet intensity and lush aesthetics.