I knew immediately that this film was shot in Brooklyn, but had I not known the year, I would have had trouble guessing. It opens at a strip club with ladies dancing to Khia's "My Neck, My Back," but somehow feels timeless. The cinematography, which is maybe the best I've ever seen on a small budget ($500k) indie film, is largely responsible for this curated atmosphere.
If you aren't familiar with Bradford Young, look him up on IMDB and get acquainted. I thought "Arrival" was a shitty mess from a plot perspective, but worth suffering through for Young's stunning visuals. He was also responsible for the cinematography on "Selma," "A Most Violent Year," and "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," to name just a few.
IndieWire did a great interview with Young in 2011 that I suggest checking out if you'd like to know more about his process. He describes "Pariah" as, "a world and a film colored with glitter and pain," which sums up the vibe better than I ever could.
Best time to watch:
When you're in the mood for a coming-of-age film that is actually well-done and not cliché as fuck.
As part of a female, coming-of-age movie marathon. Invite some friends over and watch "Pariah," "The Edge of Seventeen," "Mustang," "Girlhood," "Now and Then," "Glue," etc.
With your parent or tone-deaf relative who desperately needs a primer on gender identity. Do you know someone who voted for Trump? Find a way to make them watch and talk about this movie.
Worst time to watch:
When you have OCD brain and can't stop checking your phone/multi-tasking. Nothing makes me angrier than seeing someone checking their phone in the middle of a movie. Before I watch anything, I switch my phone off and minimize all distractions. If I'm watching with another person, talking is strictly forbidden. TURN OFF YOUR FUCKING PHONE. This isn't exclusive to "Pariah," but I've never mentioned it before and felt it needed to be stated.
Also... don't watch this movie (or any movie) when you don't have time to finish it in one sitting. This is another thing that makes me want to scream. I have friends who will watch half of a movie, stop, cook dinner, take a bath, then finish watching. What?! Who told you this was okay? You're completely messing up the flow! This is sacrilege. If you can't watch a movie in one sitting without checking your phone, don't watch movies at all.
Where to watch:
"Pariah" is available for rental on all the standard platforms.
Alike is a smart, introspective high school senior, struggling to come to terms with her sexual identity. She knows she's a lesbian, but not yet sure how that factor plays into the persona she presents to the world. The film follows her through a few months of her senior year, as she tries on different identities and works to figure out who she is, what she values, and how she wants other people to see her.
There are some really great movies in the coming-of-age canon, but they tend to irk me as an adult and make me long for the days when I thought my inconsequential problems were a big deal. I loved "The Edge of Seventeen," but it's hard not to watch it and feel annoyed by how pathetic and self-centered teenagers are. "Pariah" is different.
It deals with some of the same themes as "The Edge of Seventeen," but they're more deeply realized and not as teen-centric. Alike (Adepero Oduye) knows she's a lesbian, but has no idea how her sexual orientation factors into her outward identity. She knows who she is on the inside, but how does she make that work in the world? She feels like an outsider because none of the personas she's tried on thus far have felt right and many people in her life have strong opinions about how she's supposed to act/look/feel. This identity issue isn't exclusive to teenagers or gay people; it's a universal problem that many struggle with at different stages of life.
In "The Edge of Seventeen," Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) seems to have a pretty good idea of who she is and what she's bringing to the table, but she's dissatisfied with herself. The loss of her dad at a young age has turned her into kind of an asshole and prevented her from having experiences that would probably be valuable for her personal development and progress toward self acceptance.
I don't want to discount Nadine's issues, but they do feel very "teen" to me. As an adult, I'm more worried about big picture shit, like whether or not I'm wasting the best years of my life developing a career that brings me no joy. I know that I'm an asshole and I'm 100% sure that my asshole-ry prevents me from having valuable life experiences, but I really don't give a fuck at this point. I am who I am and I'll work on the things I don't like about myself in therapy, but they're not what's keeping me up at night. I'm more concerned with how to make the person I am on the inside match up with the person I am in the world.
Currently, my interior passions are at odds with how I spend my days and as a result, I'm often deeply unhappy. In "Pariah," Alike struggles with the same issue and finds it difficult to feel comfortable in the spaces available to her. At her house, she's forced to act more feminine and pretend like she's not a lesbian even though her parents are obviously aware. At the club, she's encouraged by Laura (Pernell Walker) to take on a more masculine persona, but is far too introverted to act hard. With Bina (Aasha Davis), she's told to just be herself ("come as you are"), and we start to see a glimpse of what this might actually look like for Alike.
It's unfortunate, however, that when she finally starts to feel comfortable around her new friend, Bina brushes her off and shows she's not exactly as cool and free-spirited as she appears ("I'm not like gay, gay"). The end of the film is so powerful because Alike finally seems to realize that other people aren't going to offer her a satisfying model for how she should live her life. She needs to figure things out on her own and remove the people who are actively trying to force her to be someone she knows she's not.
"Pariah" starts with this Audre Lorde quote:
Wherever the bird with no feet flew, she found trees with no limbs.
Alike doesn't and won't belong in any place that already exists. She needs to own and define her identity instead of letting other people do it for her. By finishing school early and leaving for a writing program at Berkeley, Alike makes an active choice and does what she thinks is right/will make her happy. She doesn't have all the answers, but she's actively working to find them, which is a crucial first step.
Do you remember when Aasha Davis was on "Gilmore Girls?" She's in 4x11, "The Clamor and the Clangor."