While coming-of-age dramas about gay teenagers are common enough (especially at film festivals), they’re usually about boys, not girls. Your more lesbian-centric movies tend to be about adults. At least as far as American films go, anyway. The Europeans are bigger on teenage lesbians. And now that we’ve helped our Google rankings for the search terms “European teenage lesbians,” let us discuss “Pariah,” which is indeed an American coming-of-age drama about a 17-year-old girl.
Her name is Alike (that’s ah-LEE-kay), she is played by Adepero Oduye, and she is a virgin, though she seeks to change that status. Her best friend, Laura (Pernell Walker), a bold and sexually active lesbian, regularly takes her to a dance club in their Brooklyn neighborhood that caters to African American ladies, in the hopes that Alike will meet someone. The loud, aggressive atmosphere is intimidating to a newbie, though.
Alike lives with her younger sister, Sharonda (Sahra Mallesse), and their parents, and has made only tentative steps toward coming out to any of them, at least officially. There is certainly some degree of awareness — Alike dresses “butch”; some of the neighbors gossip — but that awareness is accompanied by denial. Alike’s mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans), buys her a girly blouse and tries to push her into being friends with a co-worker’s wholesome daughter. Needless to say, Audrey doesn’t think much of Laura.
Secrecy is a bigger concern for Alike at home than at her school, which is almost entirely African American and seems to have a sizable contingency of gay girls. (The film depicts the subculture of black lesbians matter-of-factly without delving too deeply or making it into a curiosity.) But she isn’t the only one sneaking around: her father (Charles Parnell), a cop, is quite obviously having an extra-marital affair.
“Pariah” was written and directed by Dee Rees as an expansion of her 2007 short film, which featured the same young actresses playing Alike, Sharonda, and Laura. Rees says the film is at least partially autobiographical, and that’s no surprise. It has the ring of authenticity, and in particular the kind that is found almost exclusively in small, independently financed movies rather than impersonal studio productions. The performances are raw without falling into melodrama; the characters behave plausibly.
Unfortunately, the trade-off for emotional honesty and a real-world story line seems to be that the film doesn’t come across as remarkable in any way. Even though indie dramas about black teenage lesbians (hello, SEO!) aren’t exactly a dime a dozen, “Pariah” feels overly familiar, a fairly standard entry in the broader genre of teen-centered dramas.
But as criticisms go, “This fails to be remarkable” isn’t a very harsh one. “Pariah” is definitely respectable work, with earnest intentions and a vivid depiction of a corner of American culture. Dee Rees may be a filmmaker to watch.
B (1 hr., 30 min.; )