The most I can ask from a movie is that it takes me into a world where I've never been. So at least credit first-time writer-director Dee Rees’ debut feature for establishing a lived-in community of black teenage lesbians—people we’re not exactly used to seeing onscreen. Such a shame the rest of the picture hews so closely to the stereotypical indie playbook.
As Alike (an African name pronounced ah-leek-aye), newcomer Adepero Oduye commands the screen, struggling—with a welcome lack of self-pity—to find herself inside both a tough-minded Brooklyn neighborhood and an oversexed peer group. Pariah initially announces its intentions with a jolt, happening upon our heroine in a startlingly raunchy nightclub. But Rees pulls back from provocation as the picture wears on, grounding these characters in a workaday Brooklyn neighborhood rife with well-observed detail.
Her mother, played with startling gravity by Kim Wayans—of all people—is a decent, church-going lady deep in denial, attempting to dress her daughter up in girly clothes and panicking about the revelation she knows already must be coming any day now. Dad (the excellent Charles Parnell) is more doting and less attentive, paying the required lip service to his daughter, while putting on a silk shirt and pretending he needs to go back to work. (The character is obviously having an affair, a plot point the movie wisely acknowledges without ever making a big deal over it.)
But did Alike really have to be a poetess? Expanded from a Sundance short, Pariah offers few surprises outside of its milieu. (One of these days, I hope we’ll see such a baldly autobiographical piece in which the protagonist is not also a writer, for a change. I ache to meet a filmmaker’s surrogate who has nothing eloquent to say.) Stretched awfully thin at 80-odd minutes, it really could have used a subplot or two.
Sadly favoring the shaky, shallow-focus cinematography that for some reason has come to indicate authenticity in independent films, the movie relies too much on Odyue’s startling vulnerability, tracking every development in unsparing close-up shots which, like Pariah itself, grow tiresome in their tunnel vision.