Highly intelligent, Alika (a standout Adepero Oduye), aka "Lee," has a staggering I.Q. and a gender-bending wardrobe. With a butch outfit for school and a femme outfit for home, it's clear she's equally eager to declare her gay identity during the day and evade mention of it by night. Lee isn't doing all this work for love—she's part of a community of dispossessed lesbians. It's a sorority of teen girls orphaned by their disapproving mothers, which means Alika fears the fate of her friends but also knows it's coming. The messy uplift audiences can expect from this butterfly awakening they'll get in spades. With ample and intelligent backing by Focus Features, the film is likely to do big business—even if it can't touch the breakaway box office of its fellow Sundance Alum Precious.
Alika isn't a repressed romantic sitting on the sidelines and throwing furtive glances. Her borough serves both as a pocket of protection and a base of inner turmoil, and within it, she and her best friend Laura, out and active, go to girl clubs together. But Lee's a virgin—certain of her orientation but insecure about the actual ins and outs of it all. We'd be overwhelmed by the at-sea-ness of Lee's coming out if we weren't so afraid the consequences. Her father is a police detective and a local authority. Overworked, he's barely home and when he is the house is mobilized as if to win Best in Show. Dinner is a performance of cold pageantry and discomfort with great flatware, nice clothes and placid statements from mom. Lee's mother is strict and status seeking, so anxious about the dangers outside she clutches her bible at lunch to avoid even her coworkers. Their marriage is as good-looking and empty as a magazine cover shot—which is likely why the stiffness of magazine aesthetics never creeps in, either to Lee's life or Dee Rees' heartfelt film.
What we're waiting for is the caterpillar to break free of her cocoon—and she does in a way that's not completely unique but is strikingly self-possessed. Lee is a writer and quite intelligent, yet not wearingly precocious. And when she finally declares herself to her parents in a volatile scene, her character's cautious restraint and the shrill demanding of Mom's (Kim Wayans) threats make her seem strangely above the situation; what she's performing is fear, but it looks like gentility. The idea that Lee has a transformative power and can travel between the gay and straight social currents just by changing her clothes is right out of gender studies textbooks, but it's treated so literally that it transcends lifeless theory. But when others try to travel between gay and straight, things end horribly, as if to suggest they can't fake going back and forth across the lines—as if they just don't have the passport.
A potent film and a standout debut, Pariah's gay theme might cool audiences toward it—but I hope that doesn't happen: it could do the most good if it's seen by as broad a public as possible.
Distributor: Focus Features
Cast: Adepero Oduye, Pernell Walker, Kim Wayans
Director/Screenwriter: Dee Rees
Producer: Nekisa Cooper
Rating: R for sexual content and language.
Running time: 86 min.
Release date: December 25, 2011