Focus Features Acquires Touching, Compelling Debut Film Pariah
It inevitably happens at any Sundance, and today I finally got the happy surprise of walking out of a film I liked to find an e-mail announcing it had been picked up by a major distributor. Focus Features announced today that they've not only acquired the worldwide rights to Dee Rees's debut feature Pariah, but that they've hired her to write a screenplay for a new feature film she'll also direct.
BR> Pariah, a strong contender to win the U.S. Narrative Feature prize when the Sundance awards are handed out tomorrow, is an expansion of Rees's own short of the same name, about black 17-year-old girl Alike (Adepero Oduye) embracing her lesbian identity and coping with her parents, who are loving but also unwilling to recognize their daughter's true identity. Though this is a Sundance film about a black girl in an urban environment, don't make the mistake of assuming this is the new Precious; Alike (pronounced Ah-LEE-kah) lives comfortably with both parents and a younger sister, and though she's as rebellious and shut-off as any teenager, she gets great grades in school and is an avid writer. And though there are hints that Alike's burgeoning sexuality might make her the target of derision or violence from men in her neighborhood, this isn't a movie about a girl being punished for her sexuality, but about self-discovery even within a difficult context.
In the press release from Focus, Rees called the studio "such smart marketers" and added "we are excited for the film to reach the broadest audience possible." The partnership between Pariah and Focus will be interesting, as it's a slightly smaller, and distinctly less white, film than the studio usually puts out. At the same time it's not nearly as hard a sell as it seems on the surface-- kind of in the way Brokeback Mountain made us all identify with gay cowboys in the 60s, Pariah introduces us to a teenage black lesbian and allows us all to experience the thrill of young love and the pain of trying to love parents who can't quite accept you. Between Rees's intimate handheld camera work and a whole raft of fully realized characters, the film is gripping and emotional without ever leaning too hard on its more difficult moments, as good a coming-of-age story as you're likely to see this year, and almost definitely the most unique.
The most exciting thing about Focus picking up the film is the thrill you feel at any festival when a film you love gets good buzz-- more people are going to be seeing Pariah, period. This year's Sundance has been incredibly strong for pick-ups, with even major studios getting into the game, so Pariah will be among a lot of "Official Sundance Selection" movies vying for your attention in the next year. Having seen a lot of the other options, I'd recommend this one above nearly all of them.
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