Sex is a complicated business, love more so. But self is the most inscrutable and convoluted quantity of all, especially when the impulse to love clashes with the need for acceptance.
That’s the message of Pariah, an astute coming-of-age drama from writer-director Dee Rees that looks at an African American kid from Brooklyn who explores her lesbian identity — while her parents are in severe denial.
Mom (Kim Wayans) won’t stop purchasing girly clothes for Alike (Adepero Oduye), determined to strip this smart, poetry-writing 17-year-old of her mannish wardrobe and her peace of mind. Dad (Charles Parnell) willfully misreads every cue his daughter broadcasts, including her vague allusions to a crush on "a friend." In his mind, it must be a boy. She must be straight. She must know nothing, absolutely nothing, about that "women’s club" near the liquor store, and she certainly wouldn’t set foot in it if she did.
Alike’s story is a painful one — in all the usual ways, expressing all the usual agonies surrounding love and teenagers. The potential for melodramatic overstatement is huge. But except for one or two scenes of ritualized family quarreling, which follow a dog-eared script, Rees avoids the pitfalls of soapy domestic confrontation and instead homes in on Alike’s quiet strength.
There we find, in Oduye’s composed performance, a splash of determination and humor alongside the inevitable swells of yearning. In one memorably funny (and unexpectedly touching) sequence, she straps on a rubber phallus for a night at the club. But it pinches, it feels awkward, and as she removes it later on, it’s obvious that she’s shedding something else, too, something much more burdensome and useless: falsehood. Coming out as a lesbian is not the same as becoming a man. It’s a process of reduction and revelation, not contrivance and disguise.
Pariah benefits from solid performances among its young cast — look for Pernell Walker as Alike’s out-and-happy best friend — and warm, lucid camerawork from cinematographer Bradford Young. The film benefits most of all from Rees’ careful screenplay, which dances that shifting line between fear and emergent hope. One of Alike’s poems says it best: "Even breaking is opening. And I am broken. I am open."