By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin January 5, 2012 at 6:21PM
Although its title may be off-putting to some people, the main character in Pariah—as played by glowing newcomer Adepero Oduye—is so emotionally open and real that you can’t help responding to her. First-time feature filmmaker Dee Rees has crafted a movie that is consistently riveting because it is steeped in truth. She and her cast never once strike a false note. (The film was expanded from a 2007 autobiographical short subject. It played at the Sundance Film Festival and earned her entrée to the prestigious Sundance Institute, where the feature-length script was developed.)
Oduye plays Alike—pronounced A-LEE-kay, and nicknamed Lee—a bright high school student in Brooklyn, New York whose writing teacher encourages her to “go deeper” in expressing herself. This is difficult, because Lee, on the verge of sexual awakening, leads a life of deception. The minute she’s out of sight of her parents, she redoes her hair and dons sexless clothing. Both her mother and father choose to deny the many signals that their daughter is gay. Her mom actively discourages her friendship with a girl she considers disreputable…yet it’s this lone friend who introduces Lee to a realm of new experiences.
Given all of that, how is Lee to come to terms with herself, let alone write about her feelings? On the one hand, she yearns for acceptance; when that seems an impossible goal, she strives for independence. Both options are difficult when you’re 17 years old and still living at home.
Pariah is a modest film that hones in on the specifics of one girl’s life so acutely that her dilemma becomes universally relatable. I don’t know who could watch this open-hearted girl get the cold shoulder from her mother and not be moved. Much of the credit goes to Oduye, who is touching and honest at every turn. She is ably supported by Pernell Walker, Aasha Davis, Charles Parnell, Sahra Mellesse, and Kim Wayans.
Pariah marks the arrival of two exciting new talents: its star and its filmmaker. Don’t miss this vibrant and touching film.