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Sundance 2011 Opens with Personal ‘Pariah’: Black, Lesbian, Coming of Age

The festival opened on Thursday night with the kind of personal film that usually gets buried

The Sundance Film Festival 2011 opened on Thursday night with the kind of personal film that usually gets buried deep in the recesses of the festivities.

“Pariah,” by writer-director Dee Rees, is the semi-autobiographical story of a young, black, lesbian finding her identity in New York City. She made the film out of the Sundance Lab, a program designed to support young filmmakers, and told the crowd at the Eccles Theater that she started writing it while an intern on a Spike Lee movie. (Spike executive produced this.)

“Black, lesbian, coming of age,” she said wryly. “The three things you don’t want to say if you are looking for financing.”

Sundance used to open with a splashy film and a ritzy gala with a bunch of stars and a red carpet. Far smarter, I think, to open with the nitty-gritty of what defines Sundance – personal filmmaking by new voices, and Rees’s is one.

It’s hardly a perfect film, and I’ll be surprised if it finds a buyer, but what’s good about “Pariah” is its intensely personal framing of the world. Seventeen-year-old Alike (played by unknown Adepero Oduye) goes to butch sex clubs at night and changes on the bus into more feminine clothes so as not to upset the balance at home, where her parents expect hetero, church-going behavior.

But Alike isn’t really "butch," either. The teenager is looking for a way to live inside her own skin and her own sexuality, burrowing deep into her own confusion while slowly reaching out to new experiences. The movie is too long, and probably too blacklesbianandcomingofage to find a wide audience.

But Oduye gives the character a touching vulnerability that makes her compelling enough to watch through to the end, where she emerges into her own choices and an identity that is authentically her own.