Coming-out tale that blossoms: ‘Pariah’ is a rare revelation about life as a gay teen - and middle-class black
Virgins in the movies tend to be pert blondes. Or they look like Jason Biggs, Jonah Hill, and Michael Cera. Adepero Oduye is what they almost never look like: a dark-skinned, strong-faced teenager. Oduye stars in “Pariah,’’ about a 17-year-old Brooklyn lesbian named Alike Freeman. Alike - (it’s pronounced “Ah-LEE-kay’’) - surveys the available peers and role models and more or less asks: Is this all there is? She’s undersexed and wants to change that. But, like the boys in movies, she isn’t sure how to pull it off.
This is a movie that feels in all its vividness, specificity, and honesty - and in its amateurish screenwriting, too - like something found from the early- to mid-1990s, when American independent moviemaking encouraged far more conversations about the sexuality of young, brown girls in movies like “Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.’’ and “I Like It Like That.’’ That conversation has moved to the music of Rihanna and Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj. And there are versions of it on BET and VH1. But turning to a reality show like “Basketball Wives’’ in order to savor that experience will only make you wish you were dead. Regardless, it’s not at the movies. Neither, for that matter, is the black urban middle-class from which Alike hails. So “Pariah’’ really feels like something rare. The white rubber penis she ruefully tries on amounts to a comical assessment of American movies’ sexual preference.
In that sense, the film, which Dee Rees wrote and directed, communes with the New Queer Cinema of three decades ago. But it’s also suffused with shifting social textures and wonderful grace notes. Alike lives two lives. By day, she’s a poet and straight-A student. By night, she’s a steely fixture at a new lesbian nightclub that she doesn’t really like. Her loving but rigidly churchy mother (a good Kim Wayans) and loving but aloof detective father (an even better Charles Parnell) have a dysfunctional marriage, but they’ve given their daughter a long-ish leash. Maintaining it requires Alike to live an illusion of femininity. So on her bus ride home from that club, she removes her baseball cap, boys polo shirt, and ’do rag and puts on a pair of small gold earrings. It’s not much of a makeover, and yet watching her change broke my heart. She’s going back into hiding, transitioning from one sort of drag to another.
The hat and hard expression lend Oduye, who makes terrific sport of being both recessive and intensely charismatic, the desired mannishness. But Oduye has a tough, dual attractiveness that’s also uncanny - she’s a handsome roughneck and an even more striking woman. Once, she sits at the back of a classroom staring through a window, and she looks like Whoopi Goldberg waiting in vain for the mailman in “The Color Purple.’’ Goldberg’s least appreciated weapon is her smile. You see it only when it’s earned. Oduye’s appears only under the same circumstances. A password is required.
This is Rees’s first dramatic feature, and she strains for symbols and motifs, some of which revolve around hair, whether to tie it up or wear it down, to wear it natural or some other way. A trope that works involves Alike’s name. Her mother calls her “Lee.’’ Her father insists she be called by her full name. She’s been reared as two different girls.
You’re also forced to concede that Rees’s writing seems caught between what an adviser might suggest (“We need more drama, Dee, more conflict!’’) and what she feels is true for these characters. If I’m even only partially right (she is a product of the Sundance Institute, after all), Rees should just follow her own instincts. The great moments in “Pariah’’ are the calm but loaded ones - two young women sitting in a bedroom, listening to music and building a wall of sexual tension, or any shot of Oduye on a bus, including one that echoes the marvelous last shot of Mekhi Phifer on a train in Spike Lee’s “Clockers.’’ Rees is good with the supporting players, like Sahra Mellesse, who plays Alike’s big-mouth little sister; Aasha Davis, as a classmate who expands her horizons; and Pernell Walker, as Alike’s indelicate, devoted best friend. There’s some real side comedy, too, like a conversation between some buddies of Alike’s father. When one man accuses the other’s world view of never having extended beyond Fort Greene, the other says, in self-defense, “I been to Poughkeepsie.’’
I really like this movie. You can feel someone responsible for selling it hoping that it hits people the way “Precious’’ did. They’re similar movies, but not necessarily because of anything Rees is going for. “Pariah’’ is not a work of thunder. It’s a more contemplative film that wants to argue for something that feels revelatory at the movies. This isn’t just a coming-out film. It’s a racial and sexual coming-of-age. Alike dresses like an AG lesbian - that’s “aggressive’’ - but what if that’s not who she is? She discovers she doesn’t just like bohemian hip-hop; she likes hard black rock, too. Here we have a movie about the grunt work of identity politics and, at the movies, it’s new. This is a 17-year-old girl trying to figure out what kind of black woman and lesbian to be.