SUNDANCE REVIEW: Lesbian Teen Drama ‘Pariah’ Offers Fresh Take on Coming-Out Genre

Sundance Film Festival - Pariah - 2011
Courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival
First-timer Dee Rees offers a fresh take on the overfamiliar coming-out genre.

PARK CITY — A coming-out/coming-of-age story set in a world few moviegoers will have seen, Pariah offers themes and conflicts that are stereotypically Sundance-approved, but does so with a crisp restraint that avoids preciousness. Squarely in this festival's wheelhouse, the movie (screened here on opening night) should get a strong word-of-mouth push and face good prospects beyond the fest circuit.

The debut feature from Dee Rees (whose short-film take on this story won fest awards a couple of years ago), Pariah centers on Alike, a lesbian teen who leaves plenty of hints but balks at explicitly telling her church-going parents she likes girls.

We first see Alike in boyish ball cap and oversized clothes, gawking happily at a pole dancer in a lesbian club; an hour later she's on the bus, stuffing her butch garb in a backpack while joylessly putting on earrings. "Double life" is too strong a term, but at home Alike is just feminine enough to let Mom (Kim Wayans) pray she's simply going through a tomboy phase -- one worsened by Alike's unwelcome best friend Laura (Pernell Walker, brilliant as the mannish teen forced to drop out of school and leave the home of her own disapproving mother).
In the hands of Adepero Oduye, Alike's reluctance looks like richer than simple fear: The actress captures the spirit of an adolescent with no doubt about what she wants but a deep ambivalence about how to pursue it. Rees provides space for Oduye to explore the character's vulnerability by introducing Bina (Aasha Davis), a Mom-approved friend from church with an unexpected eagerness to broaden Alike's horizons.
Though shot on location in Brooklyn's Fort Greene neighborhood, Pariah is less interested in the story's locale than in capturing the private spaces -- teenagers' bedrooms, restaurant stockrooms, abandoned piers -- where personalities find their shape and formative relationships gel. Exceptional photography by Bradford Young does some of the movie's storytelling for it, making the world outside Alike's basement home rich and seductive.
Rees offers just enough humor -- Alike's ill-fated experiment with a strap-on dildo; dry commentary from her father -- to keep the film moving, and she shows a welcome reluctance to spell out every question her script raises. Is Dad (Charles Parnell, in a low-key but charismatic performance), who clearly has his own secret life, possibly gay himself? Is Bina just exploiting the exotic appeal of her new friend, or does self-confidence disguise her own confusion?
Even when its heroine finally manages to put her desires into words, Pariah benefits from ambiguity.
Producer: Nekisa Cooper
Executive producers: Spike Lee, Jeff Robinson, Sam Martin, Mary Jane Skalski, Susan Lewis, Ann Bradley, Stefan Nowicki, Benjamin Weber, Joey Carey
Director of photography: Bradford Young
Production designer: Inbal Weinberg
Costume designer: Eniola Dawodu
Editor: Mako Kamitsuna
Sales: Cinetic media
No rating, 85 minutes