In Pariah, the words “She’s fine” are just as cutting as “nasty-ass dyke.” Because “She’s fine,” spoken to one parent from another through gritted teeth, doesn’t mean that their 17-year-old daughter is well. It means that she’s straight.
But Alike (Adepero Oduye) isn’t straight. Barring her closeted, constricted home life, she’s openly gay, spending her days attracting cute girls at school and her nights at a lesbian strip club in her Brooklyn neighborhood alongside her best friend and likely admirer, Laura (Pernell Walker). Laura’s more into the bar scene than Alike, though, who becomes increasingly uncomfortable trying to prowl to find her first lover. She accepts the why of her desires, but the how remain elusive, especially with a Christian mother (Kim Wayans) who tries to foist girly clothes on her eldest and keep the tomboyish Laura away.
Some critics have facilely compared Pariah to 2009’s Precious, which is misleading—Precious may have been raw, but Pariah feels a lot more real. This is writer-director Dee Rees’ debut feature, expanding on her short with the same star, and it’s an astonishingly assured one. Rees keeps the camera right on top of her subjects, capturing every unsure squirm, grimace, and—occasionally—smile. She doesn’t shy from action in the strip club (and provides a graphic soundtrack to boot) nor from Alike’s ill-advised attempt to attract a classmate’s attention with an uncomfortable strap-on. The tight script isn’t without humor. When Alike wants to take the dildo off while they’re out, Laura says, “You gonna walk around the club with a dick in your hand?”
Compared to Precious—and many, many other films depicting black inner-city youth—the home life Pariah presents is somewhat shocking: There are two biological parents, both of whom are professionals. And they’re strict, with Dad (Charles Parnell) somewhat jokingly telling Alike’s little sis during a chat about prom that she’s not allowed to have sex for another 10 years.
In this case, however, tough-loving parents are as destructive as absentee ones. A big chunk of the story involves the friendship Alike’s mother forces her to have with Bina (Aasha Davis), the apparently goody-goody daughter of a fellow churchgoer. At first Alike all but ignores her, but soon they discover a shared love of underground hip-hop. Suddenly Laura’s not so much a part of Alike’s picture anymore, and that first relationship she’s tried so hard to find starts to blossom.
Throughout Pariah, you feel every joy and ache that Alike experiences. It helps that Rees made her protagonist a writer and poet; it may be a shortcut, but it’s devastating to listen to Alike read her work, especially a heartbreaking poem at the film’s bittersweet end. And Oduye herself turns in a breakout performance, so naturally inhabiting Alike that sections of Pariah—together with that in-their-faces camera—feel more documentary than narrative. You don’t need to be questioning or a member of the LGBT community for the film to resonate; anyone who’s ever been shoehorned into something she’s not will respond to the story. Especially when Alike finally starts to taste freedom: “I’m not running,” she says. “I’m choosing.”