Premiering at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, writer-director Dee Rees’ debut feature, Pariah, has a premise that sounds assembled from a Sundance Refrigerator Magnet Poetry set: black lesbian coming-of-age story. And in too many regards, the film lives down to its paradigmatic Sundance-iness, advancing a small-scale, sensitive, humanist character study that’s progressive and thoughtful without getting too far out of line. There are times when even its subtleties seem predictable, when it questions dramatic conventions that indie films have already questioned, like the temperament of movie-parents whose children fear coming out of the closet. Yet the film has an abiding sweetness that’s ultimately irresistible, and in its most effective moments, reveals an underground scene where young black lesbians can seek refuge in each other and simply be themselves.
Cinematographer Bradford Young won a prize at Sundance for his photography, and the vibrancy and texture of his images, especially in the nightclub and New York exteriors, give Pariah a boost. Otherwise, its story of a closeted high-school lesbian finding her way might have seemed more like a stock indie. Adepero Oduye plays the heroine as an intensely guarded but vulnerable Brooklyn teenager who frustrates her mother (Kim Wayans) even before the truth about her sexuality comes out. Her mom doesn’t like her close friend Pernell Walker, whom she sees as a bad influence, and her father (Charles Parnell), though more mild-mannered, is also more disengaged in Oduye’s life—both are equally in denial. Oduye’s fortunes take an ironic turn when her mother forces her into a friendship with a co-worker’s daughter (Aasha Davis) and the two hit it off.
Rees handles Oduye’s relationship with her parents with a distinct lack of hysteria, showing instead how the lingering question of her sexual orientation can stifle family life long before the truth is known. In keeping this big secret, she has a good read on her parents, but matters of the heart compel her to open up more, and Oduye’s performance grows more luminous in kind. Rees doesn’t take her to an unexpected place, but the film sensitively captures the added difficulties of a teenager pursuing love for the first time while having to keep that pursuit a secret.