A Family's Identity Crisis

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.

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.

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