Pariah, Adepero Oduye

Adepero Oduye plays a lesbian teenager dealing with her family and friends in “Pariah.”

Focus Features

“I’m not running. I’m choosing.”

“Pariah,” a powerhouse debut from filmmaker Dee Rees, is a film about a teenager learning to choose a life for herself. The fact that she’s an African-American lesbian certainly affects the specifics of her story, but it’s a coming-of-age story that’s universal enough to apply to any young person.

Alike (played by 23-year-old newcomer Adepero Oduye) is a kind friend, a loving daughter and a gifted writer. She is also a lesbian, a fact that she doesn’t share with her strict parents (Charles Parnell and Kim Wayans), who are having their own communication issues.

Her mother is mystified that Alike won’t wear pretty blouses like Alike’s younger, popular sister does, but thinks she’s just going through a rebellious phase. Her father seems to secretly like Alike’s sullen behavior, mostly because it bothers her mother so much. The fact that Alike may be lesbian simply doesn’t factor into their thinking, even though it’s painfully obvious to the viewer.

In another movie, Alike’s lesbian experiences would be a broad counterpoint to all this repression and secrecy, a place where she would be accepted and fulfilled. But when she goes out to gay clubs, her lesbian friend, Laura (Pernell Walker), seems to see her mostly as a sexual object, and is as clueless to Alike’s real feelings as her family is. That’s what I loved about “Pariah,” that it sets up a very familiar narrative and then makes it painfully real and surprising. The people you think are bad influences in Alike’s life may still have something to offer her, and the ones you think might be positive influences can still let her down.

Rees works a lot in close-ups, keeping the complicated dynamics of Alike’s life intimate and authentic. The performances all feel real, especially Wayans’, leaving behind her usual comedic roles (“In Living Color”) to play a mother who is sympathetic despite her determined ignorance.

But the star of the film is really Oduye, who plays Alike beautifully as someone struggling to find her place in the world, or to make a new one. Her face, so closed off and sullen, can suddenly burst into the most dazzling, open-hearted expression when she thinks she’s found a kindred spirit.

She finds herself taking what she needs from those who love her, however incomplete or misguided their love can be, and forging her own path.

“I am broken, I am open,” as she puts it in the poem she reads at the end of the film. “I am broken open.”

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