From its opening scene in a Brooklyn nightclub catering to lesbians, where our high school–age heroine hangs out with her friend, Pariah emerges as a film with a strong sense of self and a statement to make. To its credit, though, the “statement making” element in the equation is doled out through the soft parade of cinematic art. Pariah takes subtle and moving routes to the core tale of a young woman, Alike (played with a star-in-the-making power by Adepero Oduye), circling her way into sexual identity as a lesbian while grappling with the reluctant acceptance of her policeman father and church-going mother.
Three years ago, Precious had its well-deserved day in the sun, bolstered by the prospect of presenting a realistic and bold depiction of turbulent female youth in the African-American community in N.Y.C. While similar in terms of its frank and naturalistic style and its honest depiction of family dynamics and internal struggles of a young, self-discovering black woman, Pariah expands the cinematic playing field of this so-far selective new genre. Unlike the cruelly abused and ostracized soul at the center of Precious, this high school protagonist is a character entrenched in the working-class environment of Brooklyn, where her family gathers for dinner and angst is kept mostly behind closed doors … mostly.
Writer/director Dee Rees, whose feature-length film is an expansion of an earlier short, gets everything right here, and her handheld, documentary-esque camerawork and balance of acting, narrative structure, and film craft work together toward a cohesive whole. Rees draws us fluidly and assuredly into Alike’s emotion-torn world as she oscillates between her more openly gay friend and a new friend more on the experimental tip. (“I’m not gay gay,” she tells Alike, by way of distancing herself from the lesbian lifestyle. “I’m just doing my thing.”)
By the time, late in the story, Alike seizes her opportunity to move on to the next chapter of her life, post–family drama, and recognizes the critical difference between “running” and “choosing,” we root for her and expect great things. We’ve been led to this place by the strength of her character and the depth of the filmmaker’s expressive command. Pariah is another compelling, real-feeling, and deftly made story from the naked city.