LITTLE ROCK Early on in Dee Rees’ refreshingly modest and honest coming-of-age film Pariah, we watch as a black Brooklyn teenager transforms herself from an edgy, androgynous and possibly dangerous street character to an unthreatening teenager (“Daddy’s little girl”) in a pink T-shirt and hair bow with dangling earrings while on a bus ride home.
It’s a scene that many suburban-raised kids of disparate generations might relate to -adolescents have probably always offered different personas to different constituencies. Who among us hasn’t shucked off a Grandma-gifted cardigan and slipped on a beat-up leather jacket as soon as we were out of sight of the house?
But Alike (pronounced Ah-LEE-kay) Freeman (Adepero Oduye) is shedding more than outre fashion; she’s packing away her budding sexual identity. By the matter-of-fact look of mild resignation that registers on Alike’s face, we understand that she’s used to trying to spare them the hard news.
At 17, Alike is - like a lot of us imagine we were - more worldly than her conventionally middle-class folks. Her doting father, Arthur (Charles Parnell), is an overworked police detective while her mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans), is a deeply religious woman who’s concerned by Alike’s late nights and by her older, working-class friend Laura (Pernell Walker), a confident young woman who frequents lesbian clubs.
Alike is a gifted student with her eye on a scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley, but her feeling out of alternate identities is a source of tension in her parents’ fraying marriage. “Your daughter’s turning into a damn man right before your very eyes and you can’t even see it!” Audrey screams at Arthur at one point.
That’s hardly true, though Alike is developing a crush on Mika (Afton Williamson),a girl from her high school, which leads her to (literally) try on a masculine persona, with disastrous results. Then Audrey tries to feminize her daughter by introducing her to the daughter of one of her friends from church, Bina (Aasha Davis), whom Audrey sees as a better influence than Laura.
But this backfires, because while Bina is indeed more feminine than Laura, she’s also gay - and she’s a better match for Alike, sharing her tastes in literature and music. Audrey approves of Bina because she reads her style as feminine and therefore straight - whereas she rejects Laura as much for her class as her sexual orientation.
Soon Alike finds herself caught between Bina and Laura, between the world of her parents (her past) and whatever monsters lie in the future. And while the synopsis might suggest a more mature species of the old after-school special genre, the uniformly excellent performances and the gritty hand held cinematography elevate the movie above the usual earnest “social problem” drama.
Rees, who wrote as well as directed the film, is a former New York University film student, and there’s some of executive producer Spike Lee’s cinematic DNA in this project - in its refusal to default to bright line characterizations, it is highly reminiscent of Lee’s early efforts She’s Gotta Have It and especially School Daze. While there are missteps - some of the dialogue given Alike’s school friends rings false - Pariah evades the formula for coming-of-age films as it announces the arrival of a fascinating new star in the remarkable Adepero Oduye.
Pariah 88 Cast: Adepero Oduye, Kim Wayans, Pernell Walker, Aasha Davis, Charles Parnell Director: Dee Rees Rating: R, for sexual content and language Running time: 86 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 36 on 04/06/2012
Print Headline: Pariah