TOUGH BEING a teen nowadays, that much tougher if you're gay, growing up in a home that is hostile to the person you've turned out to be.
That's the subject of Dee Rees' smart, sturdy "Pariah," starring Adepero Oduye as Alike, a high-school girl living a secretly gay life under the noses of her sure-to-be-disapproving parents.
Rees carves out a drama in the space between knowing and not knowing. We sense that Alike's parents are intuitively aware that their daughter is homosexual, but not yet ready to confront the issue consciously.
Mom (Kim Wayans) is a devout Christian whose encoded struggle with her daughter is expressed in arguments about clothes; dad (Charles Parnell) is a hardworking cop who doesn't like the way his daughter's tomboy look plays with his macho friends.
Part of what makes "Pariah" exceptional is its skill at mapping family dynamics. Alike knows her parents have a fraught marriage (there are hints that dad's having an affair), and she knows her sexuality is one of several explosive situations that threaten family stability.
Meanwhile, Alike works through the monumental problems of teen romance, struggling to understand why the object of her first crush does not return her feelings, why she cannot return the feelings of the girl who is her adviser/mentor in the gay world.
It's a lot for Rees to juggle in her first feature, but she does it impressively. The writer/director shrewdly plays down the Big Drama of Alike's eventual confession to her parents. The focus of these scenes becomes Alike's incredible reserve of confidence and independence.
She's a smart girl, smart enough to know she can't count on the support of the people most important to her, determined not to love them any less in spite of it.
It isn't her vulnerability that breaks your heart here; it's her strength.