There is no way to miss where this debut film by writer/director Dee Rees is going. In case the title doesn’t tip you off, the dictionary definition of “pariah” is helpfully included in the film’s opening moments, as well as on the poster: “1. A person without status. 2. A rejected member of society. 3. An outcast.” Why all the elucidation? I’m sure the audience for this movie (familiar with liberal, social justice-y themes of this ilk) knows the drill. In Rees’ story, the outcast is a black lesbian teenager in Brooklyn, who struggles against her parents (and her middle-class Fort Greene upbringing) as she explores her sexuality. As with the title explanation, so with the rest: it’s a coherent film, all the pieces in place. While this evenness is also what makes it feel somewhat flat and predictable, the film is buoyed by strong, surprising performances by the younger actors, as well as the artful cinematography of DP Bradford Young. And there is the political element: Rees is that rare creature, a minority trifecta (Black! Female! Lesbian!) who has made it as a film director. No longer any need for Lena Dunham to represent her gender at indie film panels, Dee Rees has arrived.
Pariah is the expansion of a short film (Rees’ award-winning Tisch thesis), and the project went through several Sundance Labs, an extended labor that I suspect drained some of the vibrancy and spark from it. The plot centers on Alike (Adepero Oduye), a shy teenager trying to hide her sexual identity from her parents while exploring gay clubs with her best friend Laura (Pernell Walker). Unlike Laura, who hollers at girls, dances, and flirts, Alike’s never been with a girl, and seems embarrassed and unsure of herself when anyone comes close. Still, she takes pains to signify her identity, ditching the cutesy tees and earrings she’s forced to wear at home for baggy shirts and baseball caps, these wardrobe changes neatly externalizing her ambivalence. Despite Alike’s efforts, her Christian mother Audrey (a dramatic Kim Wayans) badgers her to dress and act more feminine, while her father (Charles Parnell) prefers denial. Her little sister (a spot-on Sahra Mellesse), somewhat oblivious to the mounting tension, cracks jokes and teases, but doesn’t out her sister.
Still, Audrey is on to Laura and puts a rift between the friends by forcing Alike to hang out with her coworker’s daughter Bina (Aasha Davis). If Laura is thug life, Bina is a proto-hipster, with her neon leggings, swaddled scarves, and record collection. Irritated at first, Alike warms to the more mellow vibe, and the sweet, easy pace of their friendship. When things with Bina take an unexpected turn, Alike is also introduced to the hipster’s aloofness and emotional retreat (“I’m not gay gay” is how Bina explains it). These threads of friendship and sex are the soul of the film; the scenes Alike has with both Laura and Bina are the film’s strongest moments, and show the humor and nuance Rees is capable of. In particular, there’s a scene where Laura buys Alike a strap-on dildo that’s so honest, spontaneous, and funny (“Couldn’t you get a brown one?”) that it jolts the film to life, only to have it return all too quickly to the more conventional pace of a family drama.
For a coming-of-age and coming-out story, the film is chaste. Credit goes to Adepero, who nicely interprets shy, passive Alike. She’s rightly been recognized for this role, even grouped with A-listers in the recent New York Times Magazine Hollywood issue (for their Cinematic Villains video series, Adepero played a character they called “the outlaw,” who was dressed in vintage clothes to match, and was gunned down like Bonnie Parker). Still, for a story Rees admits is largely lifted from her own experience, there are no shards of memory, no splintering angles. It’s polite, and oddly anodyne. There’s the sensation this script has been worked over almost to dryness. It’s too bad they had trouble raising the financing; if Rees had been able to blaze into production with a lot less begging, perhaps something more vital would have emerged. Most of the blaze has gone into the visuals, crafted by the talented Bradford Young, whose use of color and handheld, sliding frames gives this world some life. But despite the occasionally boggy writing, it’s clear Rees has talent, and if she continues to stretch past Sundance-approved boundaries, I’d love to see what she comes up with.