For all adolescent girls, the teenage years are a time of chrysalis, a time when caterpillars become butterflies. This is especially true for Alike (say: ah-LEE-kay), a Brooklyn high-schooler known in certain quarters by the name of Lee. Describing her own metamorphosis in a poem for her Advanced Placement writing class, Alike likens herself to a butterfly choking in the cocoon of its own change.
Alike is so persuasively played by newcomer Adepero Oduye that for long passages of Dee Rees' Pariah, an exhilarating coming-of-age-and-coming-out feature debut, it feels like cinema verite. She is a rangy 17-year-old who knows she's a lesbian. As she's never had a relationship, much less a kiss, her family does not yet know her orientation. It is about to.
What Alike knows is that she is not butch like her friend Laura (Pernell Walker), who frequents lesbian strip clubs. Neither is she femme. Her mother (Kim Wayans) buys Alike pink cardigans, insists that she wear a skirt to church. "It's not me," Alike resists, her first baby step toward identifying herself in this drama of sexual identity. Her father (Charles Parnell), an NYPD detective, fails to detect (or prefers to deny) that while his daughter is many things, prominently intelligent and curious, she is not straight. Alike's orientation is the elephant in the room her parents do not acknowledge. Until they do, in a confrontation that is heart-wrenching and quietly powerful.
Rees tells Alike's story in vignettes that are sometimes slapstick, sometimes heartbreaking, always tender. An early sequence shows how "Lee" becomes Alike on the subway home from the strip club. She takes off baseball cap and do-rag, strips off rugby shirt to reveal a sparkly T-shirt beneath, hangs hoop earring on each lobe. There are few places where she can be who she is, and what Oduye conveys in her awkwardly graceful performance is that who Alike is is still a work in progress.
Alike's mother treats Laura rudely, makes it plain that the butch girl now estranged from her own mother is not welcome. She acts as if lesbianism were contagious. She pushes Alike toward a girly-girl named Bina (Aasha Davis), as if heterosexual companionship could inoculate her daughter from same-sex longings. The new friendship has its own blessings, but not those imagined by Alike's mom.
Many of the sequences in Pariah show Alike aboard a subway train or bus, contemplating her reflection, eager to get to her destination already. Does that smile on her face at the end say that she's nearly there?
Contact Carrie Rickey at firstname.lastname@example.org.