Pariah (2011)


Adepero Oduye considers her options.

Adepero Oduye considers her options.

(2011) Drama (Focus) Adepero Oduye, Pernell Walker, Aasha Davis, Charles Parnell, Sahra Mellesse, Kim Wayans, Shamika Cotton, Ray Anthony Thomas, Afton Williamson, Zabryna Guevara, Kim Sykes, Rob Morgan, Nina Daniels, Jeremie Harris, Chanté Lewis, Olithéa Anglin, Joey Auzenne, Jason Dyer, Loren Hankin, Ozzie Stewart. Directed by Dee Rees

Woman Power

Discovering your own identity as a 17-year-old is difficult enough, but throw in that you’re an African-American lesbian into the mix and the obstacles are mind-boggling. Even in a relatively stable middle-class environment, becoming who you are can take the kind of courage that makes Kayla Jenner pale in comparison.

=Alike (Oduye), whose name is pronounced Ah-LEE-kay but is a misnomer because she’s anything but alike the rest of her circle, lives a dual life. The daughter of Arthur (Parnell), a police detective with a somewhat easygoing nature, and Audrey (Wayans), an extremely religious high-strung sort, she is by day a poet, a straight-A student who has earned a scholarship to a college on the West Coast (the family lives in Brooklyn). By night, she’s a budding lesbian who hangs out in a lesbian club with her openly gay friend Laura (Walker), and dresses in the uniform of a butch – loose baggy clothing, men’s underwear, doo-rag and ball cap. She only switches clothes on the bus ride home to avoid confrontation with her parents. She is also seeking to explore her sexual identity; she’s a virgin who really doesn’t want to be one anymore.

Audrey has a suspicion that her daughter might not be arrow-straight and disapproves of her relationship with Laura. Instead, she insists that she spend time with Bina (Davis), who is a devout church-going young woman. At first Alike hangs out with Bina just to placate her mother but soon begins to develop a crush on the young girl. When that leads to an unexpected physical encounter, the results are devastating.

While Audrey has suspicions, Arthur is more sanguine about his daughter’s sexual identity, although he is in complete denial about it. He believes her to be undergoing a phase and doesn’t imagine the depth of her true nature. While Alike has a better relationship with her father than her mother, she is realizing that she can’t live the life she’s leading for much longer. She needs to be who she is – only she’s not sure who that is quite yet.

Rees, who also wrote the film, based it largely on her own experiences as an African-American lesbian growing up in Brooklyn. She shows incredible promise as a filmmaker; the first ten minutes alone, in which she compactly sets up all the narrative you need to know about Akile’s background and circumstances, shows Rees’ background in short films have served her well. She is a bona fide storyteller.

She does occasionally devolve into cliches (particularly in the relationship between Arthur and Audrey) but for the most part she shows a singular voice. And while she sometimes is a bit leaden with her points about acceptance and homophobia within the African-American community, she can hardly be blamed for it in many respects although those who are less accepting of the LGBT community may find it overbearing in places.

That said, Rees gets a wondrous performance from most of her cast but particularly from Oduye on whose young shoulders most of this film rests. Oduye plays her role with immense dignity but also with incredible vulnerability. Alike is a poet with a sure voice but she is far from sure in her relationships even with those closest to her. Like most 17-year-olds, she is just trying to navigate her way through without the experience to help her avoid the rocks hidden under the water and so she occasionally wrecks her boat. Oduye portrays this without the excessive dramatics that other actresses have utilized in similar roles; to my mind she plays it more like an actual 17-year-old. Sure, there are tears but there’s also laughter and joy. This is a fully realized 17-year-old, complete with insecurities and angst galore but not so that’s all there is to her. She has a more difficult road than most but she handles it with such grace that at the end of the day you’d be proud to have her as your own daughter (or sister as the case may be).

This is a wonderfully authentic work of art that will take the viewer on an emotional ride through the life of a 17-year-old girl trying to discover what sort of woman she will be. It is not always easy and yes there are some moments that will be awkward. Not all of us will be able to relate to Alike but most of us should be able to admire her and if not understand her, at least sympathize with her. Hers is a viewpoint that should be experienced and isn’t that why some of us love movies in the first place?

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific performances from a mostly unknown cast. Powerful and emotional story.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally hits the audience over the head with a lead pipe when a feather would have done.
FAMILY VALUES: There is pervasive sexuality and rough language throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was first made as an award-winning short with much of the same cast; the original short included Wendell Pierce from The Wire.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Featurettes about the importance of wardrobe to the film and to Alike’s self-identity, and a walk through the streets of Brooklyn; also interviews with the cast and crew.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $769,562 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only). Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blue is the Warmest Color
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Woman Power concludes!

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We Need to Talk About Kevin


We Need to Talk About Kevin

Sometimes the glass is neither half-full nor half-empty; it's just plain empty.

(2011) Psychological Thriller (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller, Jasper Newell, Rock Duer, Ashley Gerasimovich, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Alex Manette, Kenneth Franklin, Erin Darke, Ursula Parker. Directed by Lynne Ramsay

 

Being a parent is a terrible job. You try to guide your child into making good decisions but yet they insist on doing things that are hurtful to themselves and others. Your advice is sneered at and your opinions are unwanted. It’s a lot like living with a demonic entity. You only can hope and pray that they’ll grow into responsibility and maturity which they generally do with no help from you. However, there are cases that are special – and not in a good way.

Eva Khatchadourian (Swinton) lives in a kind of half-light between twilight and full-blown night. She self-medicates with alcohol and pills; her face is a mask of numbed misery, the face of someone who knows life is horrible and full of pain and meant to be endured, not experienced.

She wasn’t always like that. She used to be carefree and full of life. She had the love of Franklin (Reilly), a decent man and a kindred spirit. She traveled the world. Then she got pregnant.

From the beginning, Kevin (Duer) was a handful, screaming constantly to the point where while on walks with her baby in his carriage she would pause by the jackhammers of construction workers to drown his squalling out. Then, her husband would arrive home and the screaming would end. “See?” Franklin would exclaim, “You only need to rock him a little bit,” while the exhausted new mother looks on in disbelief.

As Kevin grows into a young child (Newell), his development is out of whack – or so it seems. He doesn’t speak – not because he can’t but because he refuses to and he never utters the word “mama.” He chooses not to engage with his mother. He wears diapers until he’s in grade school – not because he doesn’t know how to go to the potty but because he can torture his mother by pooping in his pants at inopportune moments. He glares at his mother because of some unspeakable crime only he knows about and sets upon punishing his mother for the act of giving birth to him – torturing her and beating her down with misbehavior, but absolutely delightful with everyone else.

As Kevin grows older, into his teens (Miller) his petty acts of vandalism escalate, killing the beloved pet of his little sister (Gerasimovich) and “accidentally” causing her to lose an eye when she knocks some household cleaners into it. However, these are merely the opening acts for a spectacular finale that is still to come.

Ramsay tells this story, based on the novel by Lionel Shriver, non-sequentially, allowing the story to drift from present to past over 18 years. Some have found it confusing but I actually think it a brilliant move. Past and present exist as one in Eva’s benumbed brain, as she tortures herself with what every parent does – what did I do wrong? How could I have done better?

It becomes apparent early on that Kevin has committed some horrible act that has turned the community against Eva, causing them to splatter her home and car with red paint, to slap her outside her place of work and to break all of her eggs in their carton in the grocery store. She puts up with all of this with the misery of a self-flagellator.

Part of why this works so well is the performance of Tilda Swinton. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for her work here and to my mind should have gotten an Oscar nod as well. Eva represses her feelings big time but we see them in her eyes; she’s haunted by the specters of what could have been and what has been. She can’t escape her past and she doesn’t think she deserves to. She’s racked with guilt and is in every sense of the word a broken woman, but it wasn’t an abusive spouse or boyfriend who did it – it was her son.

Both Miller and Newell are absolutely creepy as Kevin at various stages of life. This must have been completely alien to their way of thinking – without any regard for human feeling, delighting in the agony of others. How, at such young ages, do they gather the life experience needed to play someone like Kevin so well? Yet they both do. Kevin at all stages of his life is entirely believable as a sociopath and if he hadn’t have been, Swinton’s performance would have been entirely wasted.

As a parent I left the movie thinking to myself “what would I have done?” Probably very much the same as Eva I suppose. Franklin was completely oblivious to Kevin’s growing evil, mainly by design. Kevin’s final act of horror is to create a torture so ingenious and elegant in its complete evil for his mother, tying her to an area where she will be the object of scorn and hatred as well as the memories of those gone before her.

And that’s the haunting element of the film. How could someone do something like that? What drives them? How is it that you could torture someone you love knowingly? These are questions that are generated by this movie and perhaps are impossible to answer. Did Kevin become evil because of the way his mother brought him up (which the movie shows wasn’t always the most loving in the world) or was he born that way, wired for it? I don’t have any answers for that and I suspect we probably never will.

REASONS TO GO: Swinton is spectacular here. Leaves you with many questions after the film is over. Extremely melancholic.

REASONS TO STAY: Some might find it morbid and too intense.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some very disturbing scenes of sociopathic behavior and some violence, as well as a smattering of sexuality and some fairly raw language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was in development for six years, delayed mainly with BBC Film’s concern over the budget.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100. The reviews are resoundingly good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beautiful Boy

RADIOHEAD LOVERS: The music for the film was composed by lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen