Writer-director Dee Rees’ feature debut achieves a difficult, intriguing balance. It’s at once raw and dreamlike, specific to a particular, personal rite of passage yet relatable in its message of being true to oneself.
Adepero Oduye gives a subtly natural performance as Alike, a 17-year-old Brooklyn girl who’s struggling to come out as a lesbian. Each day at school, she dresses the way that makes her feel comfortable in baggy T-shirts and baseball caps, and she pals around with her brash best friend, Laura (Pernell Walker), who’s already happily out. But on the bus ride home, she must transform herself into the young lady her mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans), approves of and loves.
Audrey hopes arranging a new friendship with a colleague’s daughter, Bina (Aasha Davis), will set Alike down a traditionally straight, female path, but this budding relationship only complicates matters further. Simultaneously, Alike’s home life is deteriorating, as her police officer father (Charles Parnell) begins keeping suspiciously late hours; it’s a subplot that bogs things down and feels like a distraction from Alike’s journey, a device to add tension.
But Alike’s story is inspiring to see: Oduye is both melancholy and radiant in the role, and she makes you long for her character to finally find peace. And Bradford Young’s award-winning cinematography gives “Pariah” the gauzy, gorgeous feel of an urban fairy tale.
R for sexual content and language. 86 minutes. Three stars out of four.
– Christy Lemire, AP Movie Critic