Sundance 2011: 'Pariah' and a jolt of raw honesty on the first full day of the festival
The level of a director’s poise in front of a microphone is, I realize, no measure of his or her artistry. Years of faithful Sundance attendance have taught me to forgive the shy mumblings or nervous ramblings of filmmakers — especially first-timers — who step up to greet the audience. Heck, pros Joel and Ethan Coen are still terse mumblers on stage, and Lordy knows their movie characters know how to talk real good. But when director Dee Rees (that’s her on the left) took the mic on Friday morning after the screening of her vivid, muscular feature debut, Pariah, her own charismatic energy and self-possession were in perfect harmony with the fearless, world-here-I-am! film she has made.
Drawing on Rees’s own experience, Pariah follows a black teenage girl’s struggle to come into her own identity as a lesbian against tremendous opposition — including denial, threats, and psychological abuse — from her bewildered, frightened conservative parents. The bravado performance by Adepero Oduye as Alike (pronounced Ah-LEE-kay, although in butch drag, Alike prefers to call herself Lee) centers the story: The virginal Lee, pining for a girlfriend, ping-pongs between the secret night life she leads, abetted by her tougher, more experienced friend, Laura (Pernell Walker), and her day life at home and in school. But the entire cast, including a terrific Kim Wayans as Lee’s religious mother and Charles Parnell as her more compassionate but equally, willfully ignorant father, are buoyed by the authenticity Rees brings to her very personal tale. Striding in with hard-won confidence to depict a culture hidden from outsiders, Rees has made a movie of exceptional, raw honesty. There’s no mincing of words, deeds, or feelings among these believable young women. The film pulses with color and the sexy sounds of club music.
The “difficult” subject matter will inevitably lead to comparisons with Precious, a previous Sundance attention-grabber that dived into tough stuff. If that means Pariah might be seen by a wide audience, then I’m all for the linkage. But the comparison is false: Precious has the polish of fiction adapted by a pro; Pariah is rough. It’s straight from the heart. And it started my Sundance 2011 on a high.
In my next post, I’ll get to the rest of my marathon Sundance immersion, including a documentary about a chimp and a drama about a would-be suicide and the cop trying to talk him off a ledge.