In 'Pariah,' Dee Rees makes an extraordinary feature-length debut in this heartbreaking and remarkably engaging coming-of-age drama set in the contemporary Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn. Credited as both writer and director, she is a young talent to reckon with, establishing with each shot a sense of something profoundly personal. The gritty, striking photography of Bradford Young goes beyond mere imitation of guerrilla documentary. It complements Rees's handheld camerawork to generate a feeling of life unfolding spontaneously before our eyes, slowly removing defenses and exposing a fragility hidden deep beneath a hardened exterior.
Rees brings with her two more outstanding talents in Adepero Oduye and Pernell Walker as best friends helping each other navigate their lives as undesirables within a culture class that already makes them feel like outcasts. Hence, the film's tragically appropriate title. Like any average teen, the girls dress in attire they feel reflects their personalities, communicating to others who they are or how they'd like to be perceived, but as the narrative evolves and we're allowed to know the characters, we come to discover two children who want the love and approval of their parents above all else. Walker's aggressive, masculine demeanor suddenly disappears in an agonizingly gut-wrenching visit to her mother's home.
Rees's semi-autobiographical plot actually centers on Oduye's astounding role as Alike (pronounced "ah-LEE-kay"), a 17-year-old African-American teenager coming into her identity as a lesbian. The Brooklyn native delivers a phenomenal performance that's as vivid and realistic as they come. Although she arrives with a respectable, decade-long resume, this is the first I've heard or seen of her, which makes me feel guilty for not paying closer attention. Watching her in the role of a teen struggling to find acceptance within a family in denial is an experience in itself, as if living in that rare moment of witnessing a future star in the making. A powerful portrayal that should not soon be forgotten.
Oduye captures our attention in the movie's opening moments when the two girls leave a nightclub on a public bus. During the ride, she stares out the window with a blank, somber face while undressing from the clothing she feels more comfortable wearing and into the outfit she later tells her religious mother (Kim Wayans) "isn't me." Alike is forced to live a double life, to hide the person she is from the people she loves most, including her father (Charles Parnell) in spite of their close relationship. In many respects, she is your average teenager and an excellent student with a natural talent for poetry. She is also looking to lose her virginity, which Walker's Laura tries to help with, and explores new friendships in Bina (Aasha Davis) as she continues her road for self-discovery.
Growing up is difficult and awkward enough as it is. 'Pariah' confronts many of the challenging aspects about this transition into adulthood, but adds a teen's struggle to be loved and accepted as the person she truly is. Serving as one of the most impressive and captivating film debuts in many years, writer/director Dee Rees celebrates a teen's individuality and shows how the obstacles that sometimes stand in your way can actually make you a stronger, more determined human being. The "coming-out" plotline may not be entirely new, but Rees presents it in a way that is original and refreshing, making it a memorable motion picture that should not be missed.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Focus Features and Universal Studios Home Entertainment brings 'Pariah' to Blu-ray on a Region Free, BD50 disc inside a blue, eco-vortex keepcase. After a few skippable trailers, the disc goes straight into the movie, and the menu can be accessed via the pop-up menu button.
'Pariah' arrives with heavily-stylized cinematography by Bradford Young that immediately hints at a guerilla-documentary look, which is not a bad thing. In fact, it complements the gritty realism of the subject matter the filmmakers are portraying. Although true to their intentions, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode won't likely impress anyone and can't compare to other new high-def releases.
The 1.85:1 picture frame comes with a very visible layer of film grain that's consistent and unobtrusive. Contrast is just above average, giving the image good visibility but drained just enough to skew colors a tad and generate a pensive feel throughout. The palette, overall, is stable and bold, particularly in the reds and blues. Much of the photography adheres to warm pastels and other secondary hues. Black levels are noticeably affected by the deliberate look, appearing fairly murky and dull, and darkly-lit interiors suffer from poor visibility and dark, overwhelming shadows. Fine object details and textures are best during close-ups of the cast, but for the most part, the transfer displays decently good definition.
The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is on par with the video, filled several great moments but nothing to truly impress or wow viewers. Being a character-driven drama, this is to be expected as all the attention is focused on the conversations and interactions, making the design very front-heavy. Vocals are precise and intelligible, revealing every emotional moment with crystal-clean clarity, aided by a terrific, well-balanced soundstage. Standout scenes are those featuring music or taking place inside a nightclub, where low-frequency effects provide a firm and convincing bass. Dynamic range isn't very expansive, but it's detailed and sharp when required, giving the lossless mix an excellent sense of presence and acoustics. Rear activity is mostly silently, although club scenes do exhibit a bit of commotion, however light and mild.
The same assortment of special features is shared with the day-and-date DVD release of 'Pariah,' and it's a rather disappointing collection for such a wonderful film.
'Pariah' confronts many of the challenges inherent in that awkward transition from child to adulthood, but adds one teen's struggle to be loved and accepted as the person she truly is. With outstanding performances by Adepero Oduye and Pernell Walker, Dee Rees makes an extraordinary feature-length debut in this heartbreaking and remarkably engaging coming-of-age drama that shouldn't be missed. The Blu-ray arrives with a good audio and video presentation that is true to the filmmaker's stylistic intentions. Bonus materials, on the other hand are rather disappointing in light of the film's excellence, yet this release comes highly recommended for the movie alone.