Review: ‘Pariah’s’ a Gay Coming-of-Age Story That’s Come of Age

Writer-director Dee Rees’ assured debut shows what life is like for a lesbian teen before It Gets Better

If you’ve ever been to a gay and lesbian film festival, you’ve seen the story a million times — teen hides sexuality from closed-minded parents, sneaks into a gay bar, finds true love, moves to the big city, dances to house music under the closing credits.

First-time writer-director Dee Rees avoids all the usual clichés with the powerful “Pariah,” a moving story that’s told with intelligence, heart and a working knowledge of the real world we live in.

Even coming in at a lean 86 minutes, the film paints a fully formed picture not only of its budding protagonist but also of the family and friends around her.

Seventeen-year-old Alike (pronounced uh-LEE-kay, played by Adepero Oduye) finds herself bouncing back and forth between two worlds and feeling at home in neither. At night, she’s a butch club kid, sneaking into lesbian bars with her friend Laura (Pernell Walker), but after Laura gets off the bus, Alike takes off the baseball cap and the polo shirt, ties her braids in a bun and puts her earrings back in.

It’s this more feminine persona that Alike shows around the house, even though her mother Audrey (Kim Wayans) worries about this tomboyish “phase” that her daughter is going through and tries to buy her the girliest outfits imaginable. Audrey has other issues in her life, notably the fact that her husband Arthur (Charles Parnell) seems to be working ever-longer shifts as an NYPD detective and is mentally withdrawing from his wife further every day.

(“Pariah” deserves points, incidentally, for being a rare mainstream movie about an African-American family where both parents are alive, still married and present in their children’s lives.)

Alike’s attempts to juggle schoolwork and her double life — compounded by her ongoing search for her first love — makes up the bulk of “Pariah,” but Rees does an extraordinary job of giving this fascinating young girl a context; unlike so many coming-of-age films that seem to take place in a vacuum, this movie remains fascinating even in its scenes that aren’t about its heroine.

Rees has a refined ear for dialogue, and so all of the conversations and relationships in the film (father-daughter, husband-wife, classmate-classmate, coworker-coworker) all feel genuine. It helps that the filmmaker has such an obvious rapport with her cast, delivering up one of the year’s most consistently compelling ensembles.

Oduye has worked mostly in short films and television over the last decade — “Louie” watchers will recall her role as a woman who enchants the comedian into following her across town — but here she gets a star-making performance on par with Elizabeth Olsen’s breakout in “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” Alike frequently keeps her feelings hidden, but Oduye’s eyes communicate everything we need to know. She’s a full-on movie star, as Bradford Young’s luminous cinematography reminds us throughout.

And who knew Kim Wayans was such an extraordinary dramatic actress? Long the undersung member of her comedic family, Wayans takes what could have been a two-dimensional uptight-mommy role and mines it for all the pain and self-justification she could find. Rees’ script provides the foundation for a complex character, but it’s Wayans who builds upon it, creating a heartbreaking portrait of a flawed woman whose life has failed to meet her aspirations.

Alike encounters her share of heartbreaks over the course of “Pariah,” but as she writes in the poem that ends the film, breaking apart still lets the light in. And while campaigns like “It Gets Better” give young gay and lesbian kids something to look forward to in adulthood, it’s important not to soft-pedal that the road to post-adolescence is an often painful one that requires careful navigation.

In providing teens with a look at one possible route, Rees also puts herself on the map as a storyteller with a bright future ahead of her.