At its soulful heart, "Pariah" is a stinging street-smart story of an African American teen's struggle to come of age and come out — to the father who still calls her "daddy's little girl" and the mother who quotes the Bible and buys her pink frills.
This emotionally ragged, slightly rough-around-the-edges indie starts in a packed lesbian dance club. Alike (Adepero Oduye), barely looking 17, cornrows tucked under a baseball cap, has bashful eyes, downcast as she takes in the scene. This is where she thinks she wants to be but she's a long way from feeling at ease in these surroundings.
It only takes a bus ride home that night for writer-director Dee Rees' distinctive style and strong voice to emerge, quickly bringing Alike's (ah-lee-ka) central dilemma into sharp focus. The film's pace is set by an infectious, insistent hip-hop beat, with director of photography Bradford Young wielding the camera like an unsympathetic paparazzo — fast shots that telegraph how anxious she is as the cap comes off, the earrings are slipped in, and the work shirt that covered a sequined girly tee disappears into her backpack. By the time she walks into her house, the transformation is complete. She seems disgusted with herself, angry that the hiding still feels necessary.
In the director's first feature-length film, Rees has been smart in the way she's constructed Alike's world, using characters as archetypes without turning them into stereotypes, with a few exceptions. Oduye as Alike is "Pariah's" subtle center, with the actress moving seamlessly between the tomboy thrilled to play hoops with her dad to the sour-faced daughter forced to wear pink by her mom.
She makes all of her character's discomfort with life believable, from the pain of rejection to her fumbling, and sometimes funny, attempts at being "the guy." There is a real tenderness to the film, especially as Alike navigates those first tentative moves at not just sex, but love — all the conflicting emotions of actually falling for someone.
To tell both stories — of first love and coming out — the plot follows Alike from home to school to the local gay social scene just a few bus stops from her Fort Greene, Brooklyn neighborhood. The filmmakers use the details of Alike's day-to-day life to drive the narrative along. At the local high school, she's an A student, a writer whose poetry speaks of butterflies breaking out of cocoons in increasingly expressive terms. She's wary of her classmates, but they seem merely curious to know the answer to the is-she-or-isn't-she a lesbian question.
At home things are rockier, and this is where the film draws much of its conflict. Church-going mother Audrey (Kim Wayans) swings between shrillness and near silence as she tries to push her daughter toward "normal." Alike's unlikely ally is her father Arthur, a decorated police detective who carries himself like the suave attorney he wanted to be. Veteran character actor Charles Parnell gives Arthur and all his resentments a rich complexity.
Alike's guide to the out world is Laura (Pernell Walker), her butch swagger only partially hiding the insecurity underneath. And somewhere between in-and-out and just experimenting is Bina (Aasha Davis), the one friend to win her mother's approval. Though filmgoers will anticipate some of the coming-out conflicts, Rees also has the capacity for surprise. One of the few false notes comes with Arthur's carping buddies, who make heavy-handed digs about Alike's sexuality that feel contrived.
For all the sexually graphic language, and it is peppered throughout, the teenager's emotions are honest and sweet. In never forgetting that Alike is an innocent, Rees in turn gives "Pariah" a surprising and empowering maturity.