NYU Film School graduate Dee Rees has been receiving plaudits for her debut feature “Pariah,” a standout at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. The semi-autobiographical tale, about Alike (Adepero Oduye), a Brooklyn high school student who’s coming-out as a gay teen is stymied by the attitudes of her parents—and especially her mother (Kim Wayans)—had an unusual gestation.
“Actually I wrote it as a feature film,” Rees explained during a recent Dallas interview. “I wrote the feature in 2005. I needed a thesis for the graduate program at NYU, so I took the first act from the feature and shot it as a short film. And the short film got onto the festival circuit. The Sundance Institute took notice and invited me out to a screenwriting lab in ’07. So it was an evolution from feature to short and back to feature again. The short film helped with investors, since we had a piece we could show. But it’s good now to see it as it was supposed to be.”
How autobiographical is the screenplay? “It’s dramatized,” Rees said. “The big difference is I came out at 27, not 17. And I never experienced any physical violence—and my parents weren’t that over-the-top. It shows a character for whom the stakes are higher because she’s so dependent. And she’s trying to please everybody.
“Alike knows that she loves women. Her struggle is more how to be. That was like my struggle. I accepted the fact that I was gay. But my problem was how to be. There would be people in baseball caps and people in skirts, and I’m like, I’m neither one of those. How do I fit in? That’s how Alike feels—her struggle is how to be in the world. She feels that she doesn’t fit in the gay world, and she doesn’t fit in the straight world. She feels kind of stuck in between.
“It’s a film where nobody’s a villain, because they’re all coming from a place of love. Audrey just wants to best for her daughter, and Laura [Alike’s best friend, who’s already come out] wants her friend to express herself and have fun. And they don’t realize that they’re pulling at her. People may have your best interests at heart, but are unwittingly forcing you into a box.”
One of the film’s most-praised elements is the cinematography of Bradford Young, with whom Rees enjoyed a close relationship. “I actually met him on another student short film at NYU, a second-year film for another student,” he recalled. “I was gripping, and I approached him. Then we shot a documentary together in Liberia.”
The writer-director also had developed a strong bond with Oduye, who’d actually done a pre-med degree before turning to acting and was playing a girl much younger than she actually was. “We cast her when we were doing the short film,” Rees said, “and she actually came in the first day of auditions, and she walked in and nailed it. She just had it. And it was important to me to have an actress who…could relate to feeling excluded. Being second-generation Nigerian and growing up in New York, she obviously had the experience of not fitting in with the other kids and being excluded because she was different. And she brings that to the role.”
“Pariah” was a short shoot—only eighteen days, plus one pick-up day. The breakneck schedule “actually worked in our favor,” Rees said, “because the less money you have, the more preparation you have to do. And so we had even more time to plan. We were more creative because of the budget limitations.”
And though the film obviously deals with the coming-out of a gay teen, Rees added, “I think it’s universal. Strip away the race and strip away the sexuality, and it’s all about identity. It’s about a girl trying to be herself. Everyone can relate to it at some point.
“Even if you’re not a black lesbian from Brooklyn, I think there are themes and ideas you can latch into, like the family dynamics and the whole concept of trying to please other people and be everything to other people. And so I think people take away the message to be yourself.
“And for people who are having this specific experience, I hope they’ll take away the idea that you shouldn’t push away your loved ones, even if you don’t understand them or agree with how they feel or how they are.
“And for people who are gay I hope that they’ll see themselves represented, and represented in a way that’s non-stereotypical and feel that they’re affirmed and okay.”