In this film image released by Focus Features, Kim Wayans, left, and Adepero Oduye are shown in a scene from "Pariah." (AP Photo/Focus Features)
3 out of 4 stars
Sporting a title that is somewhat misleading, "Pariah" is the mostly remarkable first effort from writer/director Dee Rees, who has stated in recent interviews that the story is based on her own life as a lesbian.
Unlike many "out of the closet" films where the plot hinges solely on when the principal character decides to reveal their true sexual identity to mostly clueless family and friends who had no idea and react with shock and/or disgust, all of the characters in "Pariah" correctly assume that Alike (Adepero Oduye) is a lesbian.
Alike (pronounced ah-lie-kah) doesn't hide her sexual preference but neither does she flaunt it; her principal concern for the duration of the film is simply finding a girlfriend. Not obviously "butch" or "lipstick," or interested in merely hooking-up, Alike is also a straight-A student, doesn't drink, do drugs or break the law and does all of this in a not-so-great section of Brooklyn. All things considered, Alike is an amazingly well-adjusted person and the kind of teen most parents would be very proud of.
Because Alike excels in every other facet of her life, her mother Audrey (Kim Wayans) and policeman father Arthur (Charles Parnell) -- without ever talking about it directly -- let the lesbian thing slide. Each of them has a different opinion regarding it and to Rees' immense credit, we're not sure until far into the movie what they really think. This is easily the most evocative and rewarding facet of the entire film.
Although highly effective, the opening scene -- set inside a black lesbian strip club -- is jarring and might be a tad too frank for the more reserved members of the art-house crowd. Ear-splitting rap containing nothing but profanities and body part euphemisms propel pole dancers into moves and positions rarely seen in even the lowest-rent gentleman's clubs. Still a relative innocent, Alike has the same negative reaction as the audience and she starts to wonder if this is what being with a woman really entails.
With the club scene out of the way, Rees and her superb cast glide through the rest of the film with effortless assurance that is so convincing and natural that the production often takes on the air of a high-end documentary. By handling the issue in the measured, organic way she does, Rees delivers a movie that achieves something few alternative-lifestyle productions ever do.
With the exception of that brash opening scene, the movie never strays into lurid paranoia, cheap exploitation or shameful brow-beating of the lead character. No one makes any overt attempts at trying to change Alike's mind or treat her like, well ... a pariah, but neither do they embrace her decision with relish and joy.
"Pariah" walks several fine lines simultaneously and regularly wobbles but it never strays from its subtle message or loses our attention. It will be interesting to see where Oduye and Rees go from here. "Pariah" was a hugely impressive first step for both of them. (Focus Features)