2011 must be the year of impressive directorial debuts, what with Joe Cornish’s “Attack the Block,” J.C. Chandor’s “Margin Call,” Evan Glodell’s “Bellflower,” and Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” just to name a few. When the world of cinema sees the arrival of a fresh, singular voice, it’s exciting to witness. While coming-of-age films are commonplace by now, “Pariah” is writer-director Dee Rees’s coming-of-age/coming-out film about the coming-out of an African American lesbian. If more audiences actually caught sight of Rees’s semi-biographical film, an expansion of her 2007 short, it might’ve found space on more Best of 2011 lists and received even more recognition. Her work ensures that there’s a dearth of passion in Hollywood while independent filmmaking is still very much alive and doesn’t always have to be labeled “quirky,” “amateurish,” and “boring.”
Alike (Adepero Oduye), going by “Lee,” is a tomboyish 17-year-old high school junior living in a Brooklyn neighborhood. She’s a good student, but struggles with her closeted sexuality at school and at home. When we first find Alike, the virgin is shyly watching a woman sliding down a pole at a club. Her butch best friend, Laura (Pernell Walker), is introducing Alike to new experiences. Once leaving the club, Alike takes off her androgynous AG-lesbian (aggressive) clothes, untucks her hair from underneath a baseball cap and du-rag, and puts her rings back in her ears. We can tell she’s changing to put on her front at home. The way she dresses leaving for school and at school is different: Every morning in a bathroom stall, she’ll change into the clothes that make her feel like herself. Her parents, uptight Audrey (Kim Wayans) and police officer Arthur (Charles Parnell), are conservative and both have an inkling about their daughter’s sexual orientation but don’t want to believe it, especially religious Audrey. Not thinking too highly of Laura and her influence, Audrey encourages Alike to befriend her co-worker’s more respectable daughter, Bina (Aasha Davis), who attends the same school. Though they force their hang-out time to please their mothers at first, Alike and Bina realize they share the same taste in music and develop a friendship.
Raw, stirring, and independent-minded, “Pariah” radiates clear-eyed intelligence, sensitivity, and passion. It only looks like this year’s “Precious” on the surface. While that terrific film was gut-wrenching and unshakable, this one is more subtle and pretty terrific on its own. Rees’s script doesn’t meander as much as it captures every facet of Alike’s life, at home, at school, and in social situations. A subplot involving Dad arguing with Audrey and “working a lot” actually punctuates Alike’s fear of coming out to her parents. The message of “Pariah” is plainly “be yourself.” What the film says isn’t revolutionary, but Alike’s journey is an intimate, affecting, and ultimately uplifting one. The character’s final passages from her poetic journal could feel too obvious and overt to illustrate the film’s point, but she says just enough. None of it feels melodramatic, every note rings true, and the story thankfully doesn’t overpack itself within a compact 86 minutes.
First and foremost, the emotional center of “Pariah” is Adepero Oduye. She’s open, sympathetic, and authentic as Alike, a young woman that deserves to free her true spirit. (Interesting fact: You would never believe the actress playing a teenager is actually 33 years old.) Her character is never just a pawn in selling the filmmaker’s message, but a fully fleshed-out person that has a talent with writing poetry and just wants to free herself from her shell and show her individuality. And the film is very matter-of-fact about this pariah’s sexuality. The character never questions why she doesn’t like boys; she likes girls, the end.
Pernell Walker is excellent as Laura, fully comfortable with her public image but struggling at home as she keeps a job to pay all the bills for her and her sister’s apartment. She has a tough exterior but full of sensitivity. Aasha Davis is sweet and natural as Bina, whose character goes in unexpected directions. Among the sound performances across the board, Kim Wayans (the sister to the You-Know-Who Brothers) is also quite strong as Alike’s closed-minded mother who suffers from some pain of her own. She tries buying more feminine dresses for her daughter and tells her that “God doesn’t make mistakes.” The character’s reactions could’ve toppled into hyper-religious caricature, but Wayans’s performance is controlled, nuanced, and even sympathetic.
A talented filmmaker on the rise, Rees has clearly put thought into her aesthetics, using her camera and lighting as a visual language for the context of the narrative. We peer into Alike’s day-to-day life like a fly on the wall. Before Alike comes into her own, she’s shot in small spaces with low, stylized lighting, until the shots become wider and the lighting brighter. The grittiness of the film’s look also feels germane to the story and the Brooklyn setting rather than just heightening its indie credentials.
There is something to be said about movies that encourage teensâ€”whether black or white, male or female, gay or straightâ€”to feel comfortable in their own skin. And the world could use more films like “Pariah.” With this story, audiences will realize the challenges and fears kids face in coming out of the closet. Far from a glossy, trite after-school special, here’s a universal example that specifically never feels short of real and relatable.
86 min., rated R.