Remember the name Adepero Oduye. In fact, commit the spelling to memory. The luminous actress who plays the high school junior (nearly half the performer’s real age) at the center of the exceptional coming-of-age drama, Pariah, has one of those faces that lights up the screen while lighting the way for a filmmaker’s story.
Already playing in New York and L.A., writer/director Dee Rees’ film is one of those Sundance Film Festival success stories that travels well. It started as a 2007 short film, featuring Oduye as Alike (Ah-lee-kay), a young woman coming out as a lesbian at various speeds, with various members of her family and circle of friends. Rees has opened up Alike’s story just far enough to give it some amplitude (though it runs a relatively compact 86 minutes) and to give those supporting characters room to breathe.
Pariah knows how to show, not simply tell. We first see Alike in her exploratory butch persona, hair tucked underneath a baseball cap, her affect of diffidence masking a host of vulnerable insecurities, same as any 17-year-old’s. She is at a lesbian club with her friend Laura (Pernell Walker), a more experienced woman, already past the persona-shifting phase of late adolescence/young adulthood. On the bus home, alone, Alike removes her cap, reattaches her earrings and halfheartedly transforms back into the dutiful, presumptively hetero daughter her parents (particularly her mother) assume her to be, against slowly mounting evidence.
Rees packs a lot into a simple narrative, and only rarely overpacks. We see Alike in various spheres. At school, her English teacher (Zabryna Guevara) urges her to “go deeper” with her poetry. Her friend Laura, sweating her upcoming GED test, senses Alike drifting out of her social orbit toward a new acquaintance with a more “respectable” kid (Aasha Davis). The sister relationship in Pariah is wonderfully lived-in, and the actresses Oduye and Sahra Mellesse mix it up, argue, make up, argue and relate like any number of actual siblings. This sounds like a clichéd or limited achievement, but think about it: Most films, even well-meaning indies straight from a filmmaker’s heart and personal experience, have a way of turning human behavior into movie-human behavior, i.e., a little less than real.
A few of the scenes with the parents, played by Charles Parnell and Kim Wayans, are a little clunkier than the rest of Pariah. At this stage in her game, Rees is an effective observer as a writer. As a director, she’s well past that level. The palette and imagery of Pariah are no less stylized and aggressively saturated than those of Drive, but cinematographer Bradford Young’s lighting is luscious without screaming out. Rees’ camera pays careful attention to each new face and setting. The payoffs here begin and end with Oduye, and as we see this character confront her obstacles with bravery, grace and resolve, Pariah exhibits many of the same traits, for which filmgoers can be thankful.
Pariah (R) ★★★☆☆