The Film Experience’s Hit Me with Your Best Shot gets back on track today with the new-to-DVD Pariah, Dee Rees’s singularly promising directorial debut from the 2011 Sundance festival. It’s a doubly challenging assignment: first, because the film is so darn new that it’s hard to have as much perspective on or familiarity with its visual schema; second, because it’s not necessarily a film driven by its visuals as much as its script, anyway. For did I not just call Rees “promising”? And is that word not a double-edged compliment, proclaiming first “she is a woman of undeniable and rather impressive talent and insight”, while blunting the edge of that with the hedge “but there’s a lot of roughness that has to get worked out of her system first”. And Pariah is the very model of a great first feature that nobody is going to praise to the heavens on account of the ingenuity and originality of its visuals; a consistent and effective approach to imagery, for sure, and if all indie filmmakers thought about how to communicate visually as much as Rees has, American cinema would be in far better shape. But the best things in Pariah are not, in general, the specific images along the way.
So where does that leave us for a Best Shot exercise? The first thing I thought of was to focus on the one visual motif that is really prominent throughout the film. See, the main character, Lee (Adepero Oduye), is a 17-year-old lesbian hiding this facet of herself from her traditionalist, religious mother, and the film divides into sequences set in the club where she is able to be open and true to herself, which are lit in bold, terrifically fake colors, mostly in the blue and pink families, and sequences set in her home and neighborhood, which have the jittery, naturally-lit aesthetic of deliberate cheapness familiar from the dominant mode of American indie realism. In relatively few scenes, Rees is able to set up a binary where “real” lighting signifies everything that is trapped and confining about the life Lee is being forced to live, while “artificial” lighting expresses the moments where she is really in touch with herself and able to express herself to others. And this leads to a great motif of shots that are primarily “real”, with just a splash of out-of-place color adding some shade and texture, as though Lee is just barely holding onto the sense memory of how it feels to be comfortable in her own skin, while she’s being crushed by her daily life.
I didn’t end up going with those, exactly; the shot I picked instead finds a way to get that soft, colored effect using more realistic light, and, well, here it is:
It comes at one of the most important moments in the entire feature, when Lee is just beginning to be aware of feeling actual love, or at least an affection that goes beyond horniness, for another girl her age, and maybe the first moment in her life where she experiences something positive and sweet while letting all of her defenses down; it is the first moment when the real Lee coming to the fore over the Lee facade in a quiet, intimate, domestic setting. And as such, the lighting is a synthesis of the sort of “clubby” style with “realism” working together rather than contrasting with each other. It is the film’s great moment of happiness and inner peace.
And while a still image can’t do it justice, it’s also one of the absolute best moments in Oduye’s devastatingly good performance, a blur of excitement, shyness, and comfort.
If I may beg your indulgence for one more shot, I want to call your attention to the appearance of the film’s title during the opening credits: for reasons having to do more with private reservations than the rules of Hit Me with Your Best Shot, I didn’t want to give my vote to a shot that uses text as a compositional element, but isn’t there something about the isolated framing of Lee (in the bottom right) relative to the other people and the visually loud environment around her, coupled with the positioning of the title, that evokes the concept of “pariah” so damn well you can barely stand it? Because I can barely stand it.
The May schedule is up at The Film Experience, by the way, so there’s absolutely no excuse not to join in. This is, week in and week out, one of the most fun things I do on the internet, and I’d love to see some more names take part every Wednesday.
5/9 – The Exorcist (1973)
5/16 – Edward Scissorhands (1990)
5/23 – Possessed (1947)