AT SOME POINT during adolescence, many young people transition away from the values, beliefs, and practices of the home in which they were raised to form an identity of their own. Some of these shifts—changing a college major or casting a vote—may be minor; others can cause such deep rifts that they tear families apart.
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Over time and with dedication, some of these rifts can be mended, but the process toward reconciliation is often painful. Without the support of their families, young people in the midst of major transitions can be forced to live life on the margins—cast out, like pariahs.
Dee Rees’ debut full-length film Pariah captures the complexities of self-discovery as it manifests itself in Alike (pronounced Uh-Lee-Kay), a bright 17-year-old African-American woman struggling to claim her sexual identity. Rees infuses much of her personal narrative into Alike’s journey.
At first glance, Alike’s home life is a portrait of an average American family—two working parents, two children, and a commitment to church and education. But as the film develops, we see that Alike’s family isn’t as stable as it may appear.
As a young person still under her parents’ roof, Alike lives a double life. During school and on weekends, she pursues romantic relationships with women and is developing a queer image of her own; at home, she must abide by the strict rules of her church-going mother who suspects, but refuses to acknowledge, Alike’s sexual orientation. In one of the opening scenes, we see Alike changing on the bus after a night out with friends. In an attempt to maintain a “feminine” façade for her family, she removes a do-rag and oversized t-shirt to reveal braided hair and a white, fitted blouse with the word “Angel” written in rhinestones across the chest. All this is to please Alike’s mother, who buys her daughters clothes to “complement their figures,” offers frequent beauty advice, and insists that they be “presentable” in public.
At home, Alike’s parents bicker; her mother has growing frustration and suspicion that her husband is hiding something, such as an affair. Bent on maintaining the image of a “happy family” among her co-workers, Alike’s mother tries to keep composure at her job despite faltering relationships with her husband and daughter. Alike’s father, on the other hand, takes great pride in his daughters as they are, yet struggles to have a loving relationship with his wife. Eventually, Alike’s development and sexual orientation become the central points of tension in a family intent on ignoring its many other problems. This culminates in an emotional argument toward the end of the film where Alike finally comes out to both of her parents.
Soon after, she visits her mother at work: “I love you, Mom,” Alike says in the spirit of reconciliation. Her mother doesn’t respond. “I love you,” she pleads again. Her mother, clutching a Bible and prayer book, looks at her daughter and finally says, “I’ll be praying for you.” This scene suggests that what is most disrupting Alike’s family is not her sexual identity, but the unwillingness of her mother to walk with her as she defines herself.
The main message of Pariah is not a critique of Christianity, but it does present a relevant warning for the church. Although Alike’s narrative is about sexual identity, Pariah tells the far too common story of a young person trying to find herself without the support of those who are supposed to love her most. At the end of the film, viewers are left with an uneasy sense of hope. While there is discomfort in the image of a family torn by conflicting worldviews, there is also the prospect of continued journey. As Alike continues to transcend the disapproval that looms over her, viewers are invited to imagine that hers is ultimately a story of triumph and empowerment.
Anne Marie Roderick is editorial assistant and Joshua Witchger is online editorial assistant at Sojourners. Pariah is rated R for sexual content and language.