Directed by Dee Rees
Pariah, to its credit, tackles its subject of modern queer adolescence about as straightforwardly as possible, content to tell nothing more than the story of a young lesbian struggling to come out to a family who may not accept her. If anything the title oversells it: rather than being shunned by society, Fort Greene teenager Alike (a low-key but resonant Adepero Oduye) is out with a group of gay friends and attends a school where she gets more support and acceptance than discrimination.
Not to marginalize issues of bullying or prejudice, but as homosexuality becomes ever less taboo, the essentially benevolent indifference of classmates feels like a more accurate and complex depiction of what a modern teenaged lesbian might face. The closer Pariah hews to this point of view, the more piercing its moments of unadorned emotional honesty, but a few narrowly seen secondary characters dilute the overall impact.
Wisely following no emphatic plot, writer-director Dee Rees patiently explores Alike's world and life, from the logistics of keeping her preferred tomboyish wardrobe secret to the inevitable homophobes down at the corner shop whose narrow experiences fuel their cruelty ("I've been to Poughkeepsie," the most worldly of them brags). There's a nice unforced humor, as when Alike attempts to sate her strap-on curiosity ("They only had white models?"), and genuine empathy with respect to a potential first love. Again, the emotion stems from Rees's refusal to push things too far or argue more significance than there is. We are talking about inexperienced teenagers, after all.
The footing is less sure with parents. Kim Wayans is effective enough as an intolerant mother, but her character and another mother lack the complexity marking the rest of the film. The father (Charles Parnell) feels more true to life, and while the role is a bit overwritten at times, there's real insight in depicting him as a fundamentally decent man struggling with something he's been raised to put down, rather than a hate-filled bigot. When Pariah looks at that struggle head-on, it feels both instantly familiar and quietly radical.
Opens December 28