You can count on one handliterallythe number of out African-American female film directors working in the industry. Given that rather sobering statistic alone, writer-director Dee Rees' feature debut, Pariah, is cause for celebration. Also, it's a tremendous bonus that the movie, a hit at Sundance, lives to its advance buzz and offers audiences a fresh take on the stereotypical coming-out story.
In many ways, 17-year old Alike (played with marvelous intuition by the young actor Adepero Oduye, in her feature debut) is a typical teenagersullen and secretive around her parents; and dismissive and verbally abusive to her younger sister, Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse) when the quartet is assembled around the dinner table. What Alike's mother, office worker Audrey (Kim Wayans), and her father, police officer Arthur (Charles Parnell), don't knowbut increasingly suspectis that she might be a lesbian.
Audrey is having none of itinsisting that her daughter change into more feminine attire, pushing hard for her to go to prom, and giving the stink eye to Alike's friend Laura (Pernell Walker), who is unapologetic about her dyke identity. We know from the outset that Audrey's worst fears have already been realizedthat Alike has been sneaking out to dyke clubs with Laura and visiting late night dyke raves with her, too.
Although Alike tries to withstand her mother's pressure, Audrey is a force of nature. The struggle over Alike's identityalong with other problemsis causing a huge strain in her parents' marriage so she finally gives a little when her mother insists that she pal around with a "suitable friend" she has handpicked. Said friend is Bina (the sassy Aasha Davis), who turns out to be an artistic (the girls bond over music and writing poetry) and sexual mentor for Alike. (A seduction scene between the two has a tenderness reminiscent of the one between Whoopi Goldberg and Margaret Avery in The Color Purple.) Bina also inadvertently provides Alike the key in giving her the courage to embrace her dreaded "pariah" identity.
The camerawork by Bradford Youngdrenched in deep shades of burgundy, emerald, midnight blue and other primary colorsgives the film a sparkle and deep sensuality that adds to the powerful intensity of the story. Rees keeps the camera very close to Alike, whose face runs the gamut of emotions, and the result is somewhat like being given entry to a secret, primal world. It's a confusing world of no absolutes where deiinitionsespecially when it comes to budding sexualityare ever-changing. The dark camerawork and pulsing, intoxicating music (it's a very hot soundtrack) emphasize the secretive nature of what we're privy to seeing.
Rees, who wrote Pariah based on her own coming-out experiences, has crafted a moving and powerful first effort (an extension of her 2007 short) that is a welcome edition to the lesbian film canon. Aside from a talented cast of fresh faces and a clearly dedicated crew, she has had the good fortune of working closely with her own filmmaking mentor, Spike Lee (who executive-produced)not to mention her producer and personal partner, Nikisa Cooper.
Actor Thomas Dekker, a TV hunk making the transition to indie films (such as Gregg Araki's Kaboom) goes the tragic route in Angels Crest. He plays Ethan, a young father who makes a fatal error in judgment one snowy morning while out in the woods with 3-year-old son Nate. Distracted when he spots a herd of deer, Ethan leaves Nate alone in his pickup truck. When he returns, the young boy is gone and is later found dead, a victim of the elements.
The inhabitants of the tiny hamlet of Angels Crest, situated at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, take sides as to whether Ethan was negligent. The group includes a lesbian couple (Elizabeth McGovern and Kate Walsh); the owner of the town diner where folks convene daily (Mira Sorvino); Nathan's hottie best friend (Joseph Morgan), who is schtupping his ex-wife (Lynn Collins); the town tramp; drunk; and the little boy's mother. Oh, and Jeremy Piven is a young prosecutor who is determined to put Nathan away for a good long time.
All these folks have their own set of problems that are touched on but are never really explored. Although director Gaby Dellal gets some good performances out of her talented cast (with Dekker and Collins, along with McGovern and Walsh as the tender and tough dyke couple, getting top honors), nothing sticks for long in this strangely muted, depressing drama that blows from one scene to the next without any particular rhythm like one of the pretty snow drifts in the film. The scenario is incredibly tragic and when Ameko Eks Mass Carroll, as little Nate, is on camera your heart about breaksnot only at the fate of his character but for the missed opportunities inherent in the material.
Queer pioneer, author, cultural and political activist Paul Goodman is the subject of director Jonathan Lee's documentary portrait, Paul Goodman Changed My Life. The film is having its Chicago premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., on Saturday, Jan. 7, and screens subsequently on Jan. 9 and 12. www.siskelfilmcenter.org
The Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St.in support of its yearlong exhibition about the city's queer history, "Out in Chicago" (continuing through March 26)is presenting a series of LGBT-themed shorts, documentaries and features throughout the month of January. The series, titled Anything But Straight, plays every Saturday, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. The cost is free with museum admission. The line-up:
Jan. 7Free to Be You and Me, Hell Divin' Women, Two Spirits, The Strange History of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Milk
Jan. 14It's Still Elementary, Hannah Free, Small Town Gay Bar, Go Fish, Imagine Me & You
Jan. 21Daddy & Papa, Becoming Chaz, Out and Proud in Chicago, Philadelphia
Jan. 28Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, I Am the Queen, If These Walls Could Talk, The Kids Are All Right
Further information is at www.chicagohistory.org .
The popular Chicago Filmmakers, 5243 N. Clark St., is hosting the Dyke Delicious series for a ninth season Saturday, Jan. 14, with an evening of shorts by South East Asian lesbian filmmaker Sonali Gulati. The filmmaker, whose documentary I Am screened at last fall's Reeling fest, will participate in a Q&A following the screening via Skype. The evening, co-sponsored by Chicago Filmmakers and Black Cat Productions, begins with a 7 p.m. social hour followed by the 8 p.m. screening. Call 773-293-1447 for further information; reservations can me made at email@example.com .
Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.