Branding Pariah as a coming-out film is too simple, if not wrong. Yes, Alike (Adepero Oduye) is secretly finding her gay identity. She is a bright, shy girl, 17, who writes poetry and dresses boyishly (shirts, caps) and has a very feminine smile. She seeks her niche among classmates (bi, straight, lesbian), and she sneaks off with a bold friend to a new Brooklyn dance club for gay, mostly black women. It is a place that her father, a cop, considers a cesspool.
Dad (the reliably excellent Charles Parnell) must guard his macho standing. He brings some New York street swagger into the home, while trying to remain sensitive. A reflexive (not ideological) homophobe, he is tired of his devoutly Christian wife (Kim Wayans) pressing him about Alike and so much else. A younger sister looks up to Alike but also likes ragging on her. A stylish new chum (Aasha Davis) shows some courage in this insecure, confining world. “A person could go crazy in this dump,” Susan Kane laments in Citizen Kane, and in a claustrophobic brownstone, Pariah makes a similar point.
The debut feature of writer-director Dee Rees covers familiar ground with conviction. Like so many black-family films (and many gay-themed films), it relies on tightly laced ensemble strength. Maybe it is Rees’s love of her excellent cast, and her relative inexperience, that left her hooked on medium closeups and a nudging music track. But what happens to Alike and those around her is moving and worth attention. Pariah is a good way to start 2012, and it opens January 6.
Reviewed in the movie capsules: The Darkest Hour.