This year has given us films that have taken us to slightly darker places from living with sex addiction (Shame) to life within a cult (Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sound of My Voice) to struggling with personal and sexual identity (The Beaver, Pariah), just to name a few. But even within these darker landscapes, these films have given us brilliant and captivating performances set against backgrounds and settings we may otherwise never experience. The music accompanying these various films help create their different tones and degrees of darkness from full soundtracks (as I looked into with Shame) to hardly any music at all in the stark and stripped down Sound of My Voice (I swear I’m starting a letter writing campaign to get this film released, like, yesterday).
This week I wanted to call to attention a film that premiered back in January during the Sundance Film Festival and has stayed with me over the past twelve months – Pariah. The film tells the story of a young girl, Alike (Adepero Oduye), growing up in an environment that is repressing her true identity under the rule of strict mother Audrey (played with maddening intensity by Kim Wayans), passive father Arthur (Charles Parnell), apple of her mother’s eye sister Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse), and seemingly understanding best friend Laura (Pernell Walker). Alike wants to please her parents and fit in with her best friend, but it seems she has to deny who she truly is in order to do so.
When we first meet Alike, it is unclear whether we are looking at a rebellious boy or a misunderstood girl with her almost ambiguous gender masked by a large clothes and a low-slung hat over seemingly feminine features. The film begins in the middle of a club with Khia’s “My Neck, My Back” blaring over the sound system. The idea that this may be a suburban kid trying to grow up too fast is quickly smudged as we watch Alike turn down offers to dance or interact with her fellow club-goers. Despite her head bobbing to the beat, her face reveals that she is not entirely comfortable in this situation and the jarring music works to not only make us slightly affronted, it is keeping Alike slightly on edge as well.
This world of hip-hop and masculinity certainly fits Laura’s personality, but not quite Alike’s and, while Laura tries to bring Alike into this environment, Alike always stays to the perimeter, looking on but never quite engaging with it. The only place Alike seems to truly be herself is when she is writing. Her poetry allows her to get her pent up thoughts and emotions out and even more important, start to make sense of them. The lyrical stylings of Kandi Cole (“Do You” and “Gimmie Room”) and emoniFela (“Shut Up”) help reflect Alike’s poetic nature and how the words within a song or a poem can sometimes be more powerful and mean more than if they are simply said.
The almost folk-like nature of songs like “Doin My Thing” and “Song of the Morning” by Sparlha Swa work as windows into who Alike truly is, even when Alike herself is not quite sure. The tough “guy” act presented in the beginning is certainly a part of Alike’s personality and world, but it is not the only part. Like the various styles of music featured on Pariah’s soundtrack from rock (“Pearl” and “Fire with Fire” by Tamar-kali) to electronic (“Echelon” by Honeychild Coleman) to hip-hop (“Top Blow” by Daisha), Alike is not one note, she is layered and it becomes an almost painful journey to watch her try to peel back those layers in the face of adversity and judgment from her own family and friends.
In an attempt to distance Alike from Laura (who Audrey blames for Alike’s behavior and sexual “confusion”), she tries to force her into a new friendship with Bina (Aasha Davis), the daughter of one of Audrey’s friends from church (and therefore “approved”). Bitter and resentful at first, Bina and Alike eventually bond over their shared taste in music and it is that initial bond that leads them into a relationship that helps wake Alike up to love and happiness, things that once she experiences become the driving force to help her stand up and get out of her repressed situation.
The story and performances of all the actors in Pariah are mesmerizing, infuriating, heart-breaking, and inspirational with a soundtrack that helps tie these various moments and feelings together. The music becomes as much a part of this story and near a character in its own right, almost acting like an unofficial narrator expressing feelings and emotions that may not be said, but are certainly felt. We all know that music helps convey various emotions while watching a film, but it has been an interesting and exciting year to hear heavier fare paired with hip-hop, pop or hardly any sound at all, leaving us as an audience to fill in the blanks rather than being given all the cues to follow.
This soundtrack will be available digitally on Tuesday, December 20 and in stores on Friday, December 30 through Lakeshore Records.
- “My Neck, My Back” – Khia
- “Shut Up” – emoniFela
- “Doin My Thing” – Sparlha Swa
- “Pearl” – Tamar-kali
- “Echelon” – Honeychild Coleman
- “Song of the Morning” – Sparlha Swa
- “Do You” – Kandi Cole
- “Top Blow” – Daisha
- “Gimmie Room” – Kandi Cole
- “Parallel” – Audio Dyslexia
- “Fire with Fire” – Tamar-kali
Pariah opens in limited release in Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco on Wednesday, December 28.