Directed by Dee Rees.
2011. Rated R, 86 minutes.
Raymond Anthony Thomas
Alike (pronounced uh-lee-kay), or Lee (Oduye) for short, is a high school girl who knows who she is. She's a lesbian who dresses like a boy and is attracted to traditionally feminine women. Every chance she gets she hangs out with bestest buddy Laura (Walker) who identifies the same, but is even more confident. The two frequent gay nightclubs and strip joints together trying to pick up chicks, though Lee is rather shy about actually approaching girls in that manner. It's no surprise that Laura is much more aggressive. In fact, the things Lee won't do is what drives the story. She has yet to come out to her family. Her sister knows. Her mother is fairly certain, but thinks Lee can be "saved." Her father is busy trying not to know, plus dealing with some issues of his own.
Great things often start with a smile. That's the case here. Young actress Adepero Oduye, looking very much like a really young Whoopi Goldberg, has a great one. It invites you in and charms the hell out of you once you get there. When you get to know a little about her character, you just want to give her a hug. This is the foundation for a terrific performance which sets the stage for a story that's often uncomfortable, occasionally gut-wrenching, because it is always truthful. This isn't some fetishized version of lesbianism. Nor is it some teen suffering through an identity crisis. This is a kid trying to figure out her place in the world while others around her try to do it for her. Oduye is never anything less than that despite all the complexities that come with the territory of such a role. Remarkably, she maintains an innocence about her even as things that would harden most of us keep happening to her. She is genuine at every point. This not only puts us in her corner, it keeps us there.
Kim Wayans is no less genuine as Lee's mother Audrey, a staunchly religious woman deeply invested in the life of her two daughters. She's bound and determined to rescue Lee from what she sees as the evil lifestyle of homosexuality. As wrong-headed as you or I might think she is, she has not one iota of doubt in her soul that she is doing the right thing. Her faith gives her unwavering conviction in the face of man's ever-changing ideals. A lesser film, and certainly a lesser performance, would frame her as a maniacal zealot along the lines of Piper Laurie as the mom in 1976's Carrie,. There certainly is some of that to her, but Wayans grounds Audrey with a sense of hopelessness. She continuously grasps at straws looking for something that will work and repeatedly begs her husband to open his eyes and join her efforts. I've seen Wayans in a number of other productions, both on television and in film. Before now, I think all of them have been productions by her more famous brothers (Keenan Ivory, Damon, and Marlon). This is by far the best thing I've seen her do. For the first time she gives us a whole human being instead of a joke-spouting caricature.
The story aids both Oduye and Wayans in their performances because the screenplay by Dee Rees, who also handles directing duties, reads like we're watching a real life in the most important of its formative moments rather than a series of plot machinations. Life and death hangs in the balance. I don't mean that in the literal sense. I mean the lives of the people we're watching will be irrevocably changed by the unfolding events. The relationships between them is severely affected by every word uttered. Each decision is step farther down a path from which there's no return. We feel the frustration of everyone involved. We hope it all works out for the best, however, we have a hard time discerning what means.
A battle of wills between a mother and daughter is not the only thing going on. There are growing pains in Lee's friendship with Laura, Laura's drama with her own family, issues between Lee's parents, and potentially, a first love for Lee herself. All of it is handled as skillfully as the main plot. The film's verisimilitude is enhanced by the various subplots. We're constantly being pulled in by every part of Pariah and invested in all the outcomes. As in real life, our feelings on those outcomes range from satisfaction to disappointment. They also give us something to ponder, and to talk about.
A big shout out goes to Stephane of The Eclectic Scribe for recommending this film to me. Thanks!!!