The Coming-of-Age Movie That Broke the Mold

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Take a look at the lineup at the Sundance Film Festival each year and it’s possible one out of every three films you read about will be a coming-of-age story. It’s a venerable genre for a reason, and an especially appealing one for the kind of up-and-coming filmmakers who arrive at Sundance; after all, when you’re just starting your career, a coming-of-age story is the one you probably know how to tell best. 

But few coming-of-age Sundance movies look, sound, or feel like Pariah, the 2011 film from Dee Rees based on her own short film, and closely based on her own life. The film follows New York teenager Alike (Adepero Oduye), who is at a lesbian club in the opening scene but still isn’t out to her classmates, her family, or nearly anyone in her regular life. It’s a coming-out story in some ways, as Alike verges closer to sharing her full self with her parents (played by Kim Wayans and Charles Parnell), but it’s in many ways a movie about simply being seen. Working with cinematographer Bradford Young, who would go on to receive an Oscar nomination for Arrival, Rees lingers on Alike in her quietest moments, capturing her longing and heartbreak but also freedom and joy. You don’t have to know how few movies there have been about Black queer women, before or since, to sense how profound that is. 

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On this week’s Little Gold Men podcast the hosts look back at Pariah, a critical favorite throughout 2011 that nonetheless failed to be nominated for any Oscars. It was, however, a significant breakthrough for many people involved. Oduye received a prominent shout-out from Meryl Streep at the following year’s Golden Globes, and had roles in two subsequent best-picture Oscar nominees, 12 Years a Slave and The Big Short. Rees went on to receive writing and directing Emmy nominations for the TV biopic Bessie, and was Oscar-nominated in 2018 for her adapted screenplay for Mudbound. But the legacy of Pariah remains strong, both as the model for how powerful a coming-of-age story can be, and how the Academy’s blind spots so frequently leave out a year’s best work. 

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The episode also includes discussion of this year’s honorary Oscar winners, the new Father of the Bride remake, and our wide array of Emmy-season interviews, including the terrific Shot List and Reunited franchises. Listen to the episode above, and find Little Gold Men on Apple Podcasts or anywhere else you get your podcasts. 


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