Social Justice Masks Cinematic Shortcomings in ‘Pariah’

All teenagers have tough lives, but Alike (ah-lee-kay), the hero of Dee Rees’s “Pariah,” has it exceptionally tough: she’s black, gay, pressured by and radically disconnected from her parents, disliked or at least lonely at school, too afraid to actually get herself a girlfriend — indeed, the ingredients of her life seem, as the critic Colin Covert put it, “like indie-film bingo.” And so it’s not exactly surprising that her recourse is writing poetry with the guidance of a gentle, inspirational English teacher, or that her poetry includes these lines: “My spirit takes journey / My spirit takes flight / and I am not running / I am choosing.” There’s no denying that “Pariah” is very dramatic. Alike begins the movie sure she’s a lesbian but unable to make any moves at a local club, despite the prodding of her best friend. The only character who doesn’t seem to know that she’s gay is her mother, who’s ostensibly conservative or something (judging by her violent outburst when she finally learns the truth). But from the start even they have suspicions, or at least concerns, and so her mother tries to make her become friends with a girl from church, but, well, you can imagine what that turns into… Then comes much catharsis and coming to terms with identities and spiritual journeying. To be fair, there is some grace here, and surely the intentions behind the movie are good. I feel very bad for anyone who’s ever been in a situation like Alike’s (reportedly “Pariah” is based on Rees’s own coming out story), and it’s hard not to be moved by Alike’s sadness and fury at being rejected by her parents or to laugh at an odd little sequence in which Alike buys a sex toy. But this is easy material: of course abuse and rejection are cathartic, of course sex toys are funny. Unfortunately, there’s just little to like here. The characters never seem like characters: everything they say is something that needs to be said for the plot to move forward, their distinguishing traits are all clichés (butch lesbian friend, hysterical mother, mischievous but kind little sister, annoyingly supportive English teacher mentor, sharp but loving policeman father, I mean, this is too easy), and frequently they do things without even the pretext of plausible motivation.

At one point Alike lovingly does something (braid? unbraid?) to her mother’s hair, and there is much sweet talk, but not sweet talk in the we’re-disconnected-but-desperately-trying-to-still-be-a-family way that might make sense; rather, suddenly they act as if the family hasn’t just been being wrenched apart. Later, Alike has her own violent outburst, but it, too, is totally unconvincing — she just isn’t the sort of person who would behave in such a way. Her character doesn’t ring true: she’s a puppet of the writer/director, not someone we can identify with.

And it isn’t just Alike. Every character is like this. Without true character there’s no way for the audience to “get into” a story: we’re constantly being reminded that we’re watching a movie and that movies aren’t real. This can’t be blamed on the actors, who do a fine job, considering the screenplay at hand: the problem’s that they have nothing to work with. They have no characters to work with and so their performances ultimately don’t matter.

In “Pariah,” things just kind of happen in a haphazard sort of way. There is no follow-up to the sex toy sequence. We learn that Alike’s mother feels alienated at work but never know why and two minutes later the subject’s dropped and forgotten. The father may be having an affair but that, too, is dropped. The trite poetry comes and goes throughout, always unconvincingly. Sometimes, when a Very Serious Moment is in order, Alike sits alone on a bus and stares solemnly out the window.

And the cinematography, with its hyper-saturated colors and constant shift of focus from someone or thing really close to the camera to something really far away, is distracting and makes it impossible to imagine the action occurring in 3D space: we never really know how characters are situated, where they are in relation to their surroundings. This may be an attempt to heighten the story’s tension, perhaps even to give us a character’s point of view, and good cinematography can do those things, but here the stylization is messy and, like the characterization, constantly calls attention to itself, pushing the audience away from the story. (It’s very artsy-looking, though, which may explain why it won the Sundance Film Festival’s Excellence in Cinematography award.)

Certainly it’s hard to bring a story — particularly a high-stakes dramatic one — to life, but that’s the challenge of all fiction, and one of the chief standards by which it should be judged. By this standard many movies that address the social themes of “Pariah” — “Brokeback Mountain,” for instance — succeed beautifully, but not because we approve of those themes. And it’s by this same standard that “Pariah” fails: good storytelling has nothing at all to do with social justice.

And yet I suspect the appeal of “Pariah” comes from conflating the two. The legendary movie critic Pauline Kael, reviewing the similarly weak “Dead Poets Society,” wrote that “the enthusiasts in the audience seem to be left applauding themselves for being sad, for being uplifted.” I think this is true here, too: “Pariah” is more concerned with congratulating its audience for supporting the oppressed than with depicting the subtleties and pains and joys of real life.

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