Report from Sundance: 'Pariah,' 'The Green Wave,' 'Sing Your Song' and 'Black Power Mixtape'
“Pariah” Makes Friends
Hearty applause, cheers, and a standing ovation met the team of “Pariah” following this morning’s 8:30 a.m. showing at the Sundance Film Festival. A product of the Sundance Institute’s screenwriting and directorial labs, with production and guidance from Spike Lee, the movie about a 17-year-old African-American butch lesbian’s emergence is in competition for the U.S. Dramatic prize.
The dynamic between shy, but sly Alike (Aderpero Oduye), who is also a talented poet, and her friend and mentor, the irrepressible Laura (Pernell Walker) forms the most compelling and, at times, quite humorous core of the movie. The biggest laughs come when Aleke “straps up” for the first time, with Laura’s help. Shifting awkwardly in the stiff dildo, Aleke frets about the device.
Laura offers encouragement: “You’re not supposed to wear it over your pants,”
“Couldn’t you get a brown one?” Aleke, who prefers to go by her nickname, Lee, complains. “Take it back.”
“I’m not going back; it was embarrassing enough,” Laura replies. “You gonna walk around with a dick in your hand? Just put it on.”
Soon after, Lee tosses the pale unused dildo in the trashcan outside her parents’ house. Like the fake phallus, the film never achieves its climactic potential. Much of the rest seems fairly predictable: quarreling parents; Bible-clutching, gay-fearing mother; snickering students; and a menacing guy on the block.
But, the freshness and clarity of the language, derived from writer/director Dee Rees’ life experience, gives the movie its heft. The film’s title, Rees says, refers to Aleke’s inability to fit into either the gay or the straight world. After her own first visit to a lesbian club, the director thought, “Oh my god, I’m going to hell” and worried that she would “have to start wearing Timberlakes.”
Suitably, the movie opens in just such a club, with butch lesbians tossing money and hooting at femme pole dancers. That’s as erotic as it gets. Aleke’s sole doomed love scene is handled in solemn silence and a fast cutaway. Joy of loving is left to her bawdy friend, Laura, who gets to play poker with a babe on her knee, smoke pot, and still pass her GEDs.
Unlike the director, Aleke and Laura both seem secure in their identity. Indeed, were it not for their coldly rejecting mothers and that fresh-mouthed, evil-eyed man on the block, they face little adversity. In Aleke’s case, fear of her mother’s disapproval forces her to hide her gayness at home. Inexplicably, she has no qualms about transforming into butch Lee at school. Meanwhile, her mother persists in buying her a hot pink ruffled blouse, while badgering her philandering husband to “talk to” Aleke. “God doesn’t make mistakes,” she declares.
Father and daughter enjoy an easy bond forged by basketball and driving lessons, making it quite believable when Aleke confronts him, with “You know,” when she finally comes out. Stuck with some of the movie’s corniest lines (“Your mother always lifted you up”), he still manages to give his role poignancy. “I wanted to play a dad because I didn’t know my dad,” Charles Parnell tells the Sundance audience, adding that the role gave him a chance to break a couple of stereotypes by being not just a black father, but a sympathetic one.