In a straightforward and simple way, the cover of the Pariah Blu-ray case includes the definitions for the word that the film uses as its title. And while the definitions like "outcast" and "rejected member of society" may sound overdramatic at first, one could make the case that such interpretations are not hard to get to, and the film makes a strong case as to why its main character fits the bill.
The film is told from a semi-autobiographical point of view by Dee Rees, who wrote and directed the film, which is a feature length expansion based on her 2007 short which retained much of the same cast (and at the time included Wendell Pierce from The Wire fame). Playing the role of the pariah is Alike (Adepero Oduye, Half Nelson), a 17-year old lesbian growing up in Brooklyn. She hides her true self from her mother Audrey (Kim Wayans, Juwanna Mann) and father Arthur (Charles Parnell, The Education of Charlie Banks), but gets to school early so she can change clothes and be what she really wants to be. Both in and out of school, her closest friend seems to be Laura (Pernell Walker), also a lesbian but ostracized by her own family for her way of life. Alike (pronounced ah-lee-kay) does what she can to both be comfortable with who she is while avoiding the inevitable confrontation by her family should the truth about her get revealed.
I won't pretend to identify with Alike's struggle to maintain a level of comfort in her identity while stifling it. It is a struggle that is hard to relate to at initial reflection, but what Rees manages to communicate adeptly with her film is the ability for those who can't sympathize with it to do so almost immediately. We see Alike having fun and doing what she wants at a club in the city, then she has to change her clothes and her hair when she gets home and sees Mom and Dad. That feeling of general mischief while you are out with friends is something that all of us can relate to, but when you see what Alike has to stifle on her way home to avoid a parental interrogation, you realize quickly that her burden is more than just drinking and/or smoking with friends.
Oduye's performance goes beyond that of what could be topically considered a rebellious teenager, and one who quietly and almost peripherally explores more of what she wants to be. Those around her deal with this exploration in varying degrees. Laura seemingly wants her to get it over with and just tell the truth, rip off the band aid. When she meets a girl at school named Bina (Aasha Davis), she finds a brief moment of happiness which ultimately (and heartbreakingly) comes without reciprocation. She wonders what her parents will think if she ever told them the truth about herself, even though as a police detective, Arthur seemingly knows and/or has a good idea, but still refuses to admit it. Audrey is a ball of passive aggression, always looking to put a final touch on something in order to maintain a good optic. Even as she seemingly is aware of Arthur's extramarital straying, she does not confront him about them unless it is part of another issue. With this dynamic going on (and many others), the quiet sense of self-reliance that Alike has developed is fascinating to witness.
Along the same lines, Wayans' performance is also something that should be commended for that sense of manipulation she tries to impart within her family. Her and Parnell work well together, but in Audrey she tries to control everything but in reality has very little control at all. She is almost an outsider within her own family, and yet she does not seem to realize it. In that way she is less honest with herself than Alike is, don't you think?
I know someone who went through a similar circumstance with Alike, with a similar family dynamic. And at some point the burden to hide yourself from people you love seemingly gets hard to bear. While Pariah may not be something that fits everyone's circumstances, it is substantial enough of a head start for parents of gay and lesbian teens to seek out and learn from as much as their children will.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Universal shows off Pariah with a VC1-encoded 1.85:1 widescreen transfer, and considering how much of the film is shot with handheld cameras I was not expecting too much from the Blu-ray. That said, the disc looks very good, with flesh tones looking accurate and facial pores and imperfections being readily discernible. The background lacks any substantial detail to speak of, but the many club sequences look solid with deep black levels, and film grain is evident during the viewing experience as well, with no DNR or image haloing to speak of. The disc would appear to be faithful to the feature.
The film's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless audio track is not called upon to be a sonic wonder, but it handles what is asked of it and without any sort of concern. Dialogue is consistent and well-balanced through the center channel, and there is a fair amount of club music which is communicated through the soundstage clearly and requires little adjustment. The low-end fidelity through said club music is present and rounds out the soundtrack nicely, and there are hints of channel panning and directional effects both there and in quieter sequences at Alike's home. It is a pleasant soundtrack to listen to for such a modest film.
Not very much is here to be honest, and all appear to have been done with Rees, Oduye and Walker being interviewed on the streets of New York. "A Director's Style" (2:17) shows us the steps that Rees took to realize her intent in certain scenes and in the film itself, "A Walk in Brooklyn" (2:02) is where the trio discuss the importance of shooting on location, and "Trying Out Identity" (2:43) is where the wardrobe and the characters' importance and motivation of is recounted.
At a compact 87 minutes, Pariah is filled with outstanding performances and emotional moments good and bad that make it worth seeing for those alone. The fact that it is about a lesbian teen growing up and trying to be honest with herself around those she loves gives it a raised gravitas that makes it almost an appointment viewing. The lack of extras certainly drag it down (in my opinion) from being a keeper, but it brings enough to the table in other more personal areas that others will and should snap it up.