Dee Rees’ semi-autobiographical film is essentially a gay coming-out-of-age tale, but while it’s better than most such fare, “Pariah” isn’t sufficiently revelatory or distinctive to merit more than a mild recommendation.
The strengths of the picture, to begin, are considerable. The most notable is the vivid, nuanced performance of Adepero Oduye as Alike, a talented Brooklyn high school student whose best friend, Laura (Pernell Walker), is a defiantly out lesbian with whom she’s going secretly to clubs as a prelude to a first sexual encounter. Laura’s been disowned by her mother, and Alike’s mom Audrey (Kim Wayans), an uptight hospital worker, is concerned that her daughter is headed in the same direction and anxious to break up their friendship.
It’s really the focus on the relationships between parents and children that gives “Pariah” its most surprising moments. The relationship between Alike and Audrey, in particular, takes an unexpected turn when the latter pushes her daughter toward Bina (Aasha Davis), the daughter of a church friend, and Bina proves an experienced girl who invites Alike to bed during a sleepover.
That ironic twist is, unfortunately, undermined by Wayans’ overly shrill performance and by the script’s weakness in filling out the character of Bina, who turns abruptly cool on the morning after. The failure to make Bina credible on the page is accentuated by Davis’ stiffness on the screen.
More affecting, in fact, is Alike’s relationship with her father Arthur (Charles Parnell), a cop whose long hours have caused a degree of estrangement from Audrey. But he’s a caring dad, although his suspicion that his daughter might be gay is something he’s obviously not ready to deal with, despite their closeness. (A scene set in a neighborhood store where he’s accosted by a local troublemaker after giving Alike a driving lesson is especially strong.)
In the final analysis, however, “Pariah” ends up seeming too diffuse for its own good. So long as it concentrates on Alike, it’s dramatically potent, especially because of the truthfulness of Oduye—who looks far younger than her actual years. But in trying to juggle the strands of the girl’s relationship with Laura and Bina, with Audrey and Arthur, with her younger sister, and even with an English teacher who’s encouraging her creative writing, the script meanders. Even a powerful scene like the one toward the close between Laura and her mother comes across as an obvious commentary on where the Alike-Audrey relationship might wind up.
The film is also weakened by a determined effort to look arty on a small budget, which finds expression in frequently contrived camera setups and cinematography (by Bradford Young) that too often calls attention to itself rather than the substance of what it’s recording.
Nonetheless “Pariah” overcomes its flaws to emerge as a sporadically revealing portrait of a young girl’s struggle to find herself in a cruelly hostile environment—a promising debut for Rees and a triumph for Oduye.