"Pariah," writer-director Dee Rees' feature debut, achieves a difficult, intriguing balance. It's at once raw and dreamlike, specific to a particular, personal rite of passage yet widely relatable in its message of being true to oneself.
Adepero Oduye gives a subtly natural performance as Alike (pronounced ah-lee-kay), a 17-year-old Brooklyn girl who's struggling to come out as a lesbian. Each day at school, she dresses the way that makes her feel comfortable in baggy T-shirts and baseball caps, and she pals around with her brash best friend, Laura (Pernell Walker), who's already happily out. But on the bus ride home, she must transform herself into the young lady her mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans), approves of and loves. You can see the weight of resignation hanging on her shoulders, the sadness in her eyes as she catches a glimpse of herself in the window.
Audrey hopes arranging a new friendship with a colleague's daughter, Bina (Aasha Davis), will set Alike down a traditionally straight, female path, but this budding relationship only complicates matters further. While the two girls don't exactly bond at first, Bina eventually becomes beguiling to Alike on a number of levels; their mutual fascination with each other would be believable even if they'd forged a simply heterosexual connection.
But nothing is ever simple with girls at this age, and so there are gray areas, a phenomenon Rees herself clearly understands. "Pariah" isn't exactly an autobiographical tale for the filmmaker, but the struggle Alike endures is obviously quite personal to her.
Simultaneously, Alike's home life is deteriorating, as her police officer father (Charles Parnell) begins keeping suspiciously late hours; it's a subplot that bogs things down and feels like a distraction from Alike's journey, a device to crank up the tension. The growing rift between mother and daughter certainly provides enough angst already, with Audrey remaining fiercely closed-minded, even as Alike finally begins to feel free.
Her story is inspiring to see, whether you're gay or straight and regardless of age or race; she's searching for her place in the world at a difficult, transitional time, something we've all experienced. Oduye is both melancholy and radiant in the role, and she makes you long for her character to finally find peace. And Bradford Young's award-winning cinematography gives "Pariah" the gauzy, gorgeous feel of an urban fairy tale - one in which our heroine doesn't necessarily live happily ever after, but at least she has hope. And she knows who she is.
"Pariah," a Focus Features release, is rated R for sexual content and language. Running time: 86 minutes. Three stars out of four.