Focus handling Sundance drama ‘Pariah’ with special care

During this time of year it’s pretty common to hear someone incredulously remark “Why is [insert movie studio] releasing [insert this movie] during awards season?  It could do so much better in the [name a more appropriate time of year].”  Usually, it’s because a filmmaker associated with the picture has unrealistic Academy Awards dreams for either the picture, one of their stars or, sadly, themselves.  The problem is that audiences would likely embrace the picture at a different time of year which could mean, um, better financial returns.  And, sometimes, it’s a smaller distributor making a gutsy, go for broke call with little chance of success.  I’ll be quite honest, until a lunch at the Chateau Marmont Thursday afternoon, I had put the striking Sundance drama “Pariah” in the “gutsy” category.

The rare example of a good opening night film at Sundance (almost a miracle), Dee Rees’ “Pariah” tells the story of Alike (Adepero Oduye), a Brooklyn teenager who is struggling with her gay identity both at home and amongst her friends.  As I noted in my review from the film’s premiere last January, “Pariah” is a perfect example of the resurgence of quality gay themed indie films (a trend that continued this year at SXSW with “Weekend”).  However, I’m not sure anyone who saw the film at Sundance would have considered it an “awards” picture outside of obvious Independent Spirit Awards consideration.  

Of course Focus Features, which picked up “Pariah,” has an impressive history with releasing and supporting groundbreaking gay films.  From “Brokeback Mountain” to “Milk” to “The Kids Are All Right” to “My Summer of Love” to “Far From Heaven” to last summer’s “Beginners,” the mini-major has been a social force for opening audiences to all aspects of gay life on the big screen.  With “Pariah,” the studio decided to release the drama in limited release on Dec. 28 and expand it throughout January and February.  That’s a pretty competitive time frame on the art house circuit, but the studio obviously believes the positive reviews the picture received so far will fuel strong limited returns. On this day, the studio had fashioned an intimate lunch featuring writer/director Rees, the incredibly charming Oduye, Kim Wayans who plays Alike’s conservative mother (yes, that Kim Wayans) and Aasha Davis (best known for a short stint on “Friday Night Lights”) who plays a family friend.  

Speaking to these talented ladies and a few invited journalists, I was immediately reminded of how rare it is these days for a film about real African American women to hit theaters.  Sure, there are Tyler Perry movies, but an original movie about African American women? Let alone a film that shines the light on African American lesbians?  That’s almost unheard of.  And for the writers present who cover African American entertainment it was the subject they kept returning to again and again.  For Kim Wayans, who has fought for years to be given a chance with a meaty dramatic role (and succeeds beautifully), it was important to make “Pariah” for her gay niece and in memory of a gay male friend who was beaten and killed by a younger man he’d met at club. Wayans also lamented about how few positive role models there are on TV for African American girls as it’s mostly filled with reality shows featuring women who just fight with each other in over-the-top arguments (“My friend and I don’t know who those people are. We’ve never seen women act like that.”). Oduye, who still looks a decade younger than her 33 years, has been moved by audiences all oner the world finding a universal truth in the picture of a person just trying to find acceptance for who they are.  Dees is looking forward to taking the film to cities in the south such as Atlanta and just getting it in theaters for audiences to discover.  And when you take all that into account, frankly, perhaps Focus is making the right move.

Realistically, “Pariah” could easily find itself the recipient of numerous critics awards outside the traditional best picture race (best first film, special achievement in filmmaking, etc.) and could also make enough top ten lists to help publicize the picture in art house theaters outside of New York and Los Angeles.  The studio is also making a smart strategic decision by making sure the screener is in Academy and guild member hands by Thanksgiving.  Granted, there will be numerous screeners hitting mailboxes (“Warrior” and “Contagion” are two recent arrivals), but in races such as original screenplay (where another indie “Margin Call” has been mentioned by members) or cinematography (remember Bradford Young’s name) you honestly never know.

More importantly though, many distributors could pick up a film like “Pariah” and lose interest in it just a few months down the road.  But Focus? Nope. That’s not gonna happen.  When they care. They care.  Pay heed young Sundance filmmakers.  You only get your first chance to shine once and in Dees case, she’s in more than capable hands.

Oh, and don’t forget to watch that screener Academy and guild members.  You may be surprised at what you think of it.

“Pariah” opens in select theaters on Dec. 28.

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