Sundance 2011: ‘Pariah’ director (a Spike Lee acolyte) joins the fold

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This Oscar season, many pundits have lamented the dearth of female and black filmmakers. But it may not stay that way for long if a Spike Lee protege named Dee Rees has anything to say about it.

The writer-director unveiled her debut feature, a lesbian coming-of-age story, ‘Pariah,’ at Thursday’s opening night of the Sundance Film Festival to a hugely enthusiastic reception. The semi-autobiographical tale follows a soft-spoken black teenager named Alike as she begins discovering her own sexuality. Through a series of complex relationships with a butch teenager, a free-spirited female friend, a quietly confident father and a disapproving mother, Alike’s odyssey teases out insights on identity and family, while eliciting a surprising number of laughs from the packed Eccles Theater in Park City, Utah.


A standing ovation followed the screening, and while the movie avoids the melodrama of a ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ or a ‘Precious’ (a hit here two years ago), it was hard for some in the audience to resist the comparisons.

Rees’ back story is almost as specific as the story on the screen. While working as an intern for Lee on the set of ‘Inside Man’ six years ago, she would go off during breaks and scribble a screenplay -- scribbling that soon turned into 140 pages of script material. She then whittled it down for a short that went on to win acclaim on the festival circuit -- including at Sundance and the Los Angeles Film Festival -- before developing it into a full-blown feature, with an assist from the Sundance Institute.

Lee got involved when Rees was writing the script, offering notes and slashing lines that he didn’t think belonged. ''Corny, corny,’ like a sharpie, killing it,’ is how Rees described the process. He then offered similar feedback after watching cuts of the film.

The director acknowledged her movie doesn’t have the most commercial premise. ‘You say, ‘black’ -- ‘Oh no,’' she said recounting a (hypothetical?) meeting with financiers. ‘You say, ‘lesbian’ -- ‘Oh no.’ You say, ‘coming of age,’ they’re like, ‘Next meeting.’'

Given the reception Thursday night, though, it’s hard to imagine people in Hollywood -- including the numerous agents who had turned out to scout Rees -- skipping many meetings with her.

-- Steven Zeitchik