Pariah, director Dee Rees' drama of coming of age while coming out, is a small movie: It's small in size — tight, contained, clocking in at just 86 minutes — and it's small in stature, spare and yet packed with tiny moments that reveal big truths.
Sure, you'll be grabbed by the film's oversize opening salvo: an all-estrogen joint where the beat is bumping, women are swinging from the poles and over there, in the corner, Alike (Adepero Oduye), a baby-butch high schooler, looking at once mesmerized and discomfited, takes it all in. But the heart of the movie is to be found in the next, nearly wordless scene.
Alike, riding home on the bus, swaps out her thugged-out gear for a formfitting pink T-shirt and dangling earrings. Now transformed, she sits, staring out the window. And in that still moment, we know everything we need to know about her.
In her middle-class Brooklyn, N.Y., home, Alike plays the dutiful daughter, trying her best to be a girlie girl, the kind of young lady of whom her uptight mother (the fabulous and almost unrecognizable Kim Wayans) approves. Outside her home, she plays the macho girl, all swagger and bluster, the kind of out-and-proud lesbian of whom her freewheeling friend Laura (Pernell Walker) approves.
But really, like all teenagers, she's just trying on personas for size. Hers is a life lived on the tightrope, navigating family expectations, high school cliques, a burgeoning sexuality and falling in love for the very first time.
In lesser hands, Pariah, which opens in limited release Dec. 28, would read like some after-school special, earnest and heavy-handed, pounding the viewer with big themes and messages. Rees, a former NYU film student, was mentored by executive producer Spike Lee, and his influence is evident throughout, from the spot-on dialogue to the skillfully unforced performances. (Rees first produced Pariah as a film short; this is the expanded version.) Notwithstanding Lee's influence, Pariah, which was a big hit at Sundance earlier this year, is a distinct original, breaking up pathos with moments of high hilarity. (You'll never look at a dildo the same way again.)
Mainstream film rarely sheds a light on LGBT life, never mind that of young black lesbians. (The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love, starring Nicole Ari Parker, is one exception.) It's also rare — shamefully so — to see middle-class black family life depicted on the big screen, with all its ordinary, everyday, revelatory moments. Wayans and Charles Parnell, who plays Alike's detective father, infuse the film with palpable tension as a battle-weary couple whose marriage is long past its expiration date. ("Your daughter is turning into a damn man right in front of your eyes and you can't face it!" Wayans snarls.)
Also to be appreciated: life lived on the other side of the tracks, as seen through Laura and other brown and black lesbian club kids. These are young women who have been shunned by their families and are forced to exist on the outskirts, scrambling to keep things together and couch-surfing because they've got nowhere else to go.
But ultimately, the film is Oduye's, and she claims it in a breakout performance. (Oduye, a Nigerian American, also played Alike in the original, shorter version of the film.) It's hard to take your eyes off of her, whether she's traversing the hallways at high school, sneaking sidelong glances at the cute girls, squabbling with her know-it-all baby sister at home or listening to Afro-punker Tamar-Kali for the first time, eyes opening wide as she realizes that she's found her musical home.
Click here to read The Root's interview with Dee Rees.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root's senior editor. Follow her on Twitter.