The year’s best coming-of-age film has slipped in just under the wire. Pariah, which opens this week with a limited release geared towards awards season, opens in a lesbian club where shy Brooklyn teenager Alike (Adepero Oduye) is failing to fit in. Her vivacious best friend Laura (Pernell Walker) is taking phone numbers and grooving with the pretty girls, but Alike (pronounced A-leek-ay) is the awkward wallflower. She knows she’s gay, but not sure where she belongs or how to open up. The best she can do is costume herself in boy’s clothing. On the bus ride home, she takes off a few layers to reveal the sparkly t-shirt that will pass muster with her mother Audrey (Kim Wayans), stern guardian of the normal.
Pariah is writer/director Dee Rees’ feature film debut (she released a short version of the story, also starring Oduye, in 2007) but her voice is already powerful and gracefully confident; the only sense in which Rees seems like a newcomer lies in the freshness of her approach and the subtext of Alike’s story, namely that she is from a conservative black family. While Tongues Untied, Marlon Riggs’s acclaimed documentary about being black and gay came out more than two decades ago, stories about homosexuality in the black community are still few and far between. (Tyler Perry’s 2010 adaptation of Ntozake’s Shange’s play For Colored Girls dealt, clumsily, with a male character on the down low. Another 2011 feature, Gun Hill Road, deals with the relationship between a male to female transgender Latino teen and her black boyfriend, which qualifies 2011 as a banner year within the genre).
(READ: The Battle Over Gay Teens)
The main focus of Pariah is Alike’s struggle to come out — she experiences the joys of first love and then almost immediately gets smacked with the full force of parental disapproval — but it is simultaneously about her mother’s struggle to get in, to keep her black family upwardly mobile. They’ve got a toehold in the middle class, but matriarch Audrey wants more. She longs for fashionable clothing, nicer things for their apartment, anything that helps her put a proud public face on the family. Appearances matter desperately to her. College for Alike and her younger sister Sharonda (Sahra Mellesseare) is a given. Church a must. Homosexuality not an option.
The family is fraying, though. Audrey suspects her husband Arthur (Charles Parnell) is having an affair. She’s also aware that her daughter favors boys clothing and non-girlie company — you can practically see her skin crawl when pleasant and cheerful but undeniably butch Laura drops by. But Audrey hopes this might be something she can control by buying prim pink cardigans for her daughter or by making her walk to school every day with a more appropriate friend — Bina, the daughter of one of the doctors at the health clinic where Audrey works. Pretty, petite Bina and her mother are the “right” kind of people, while Laura, who was thrown out of the house by her own bigoted mother, is all wrong.
There’s a temptation to make comparisons with Precious. Not only is Oduye the most exciting young black actress to emerge since that film’s star, Gabourey Sidibe, but the character is also struggling against an oppressive mother played by an actress known primarily for her comedy (Wayans is sister to Damon, Shawn, Marlon and Keenen Ivory) but now deserving of recognition for her dramatic work. It’s not a particularly apt comparison, though it is one arrived at in large part because there are so lamentably few movies of note with great parts for black actresses (This year, the much-piled upon The Help, and what else?) With its instantly engaging teenaged heroine, Pariah felt more to me like a modern day version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn with some of the sensuality of My Summer of Love, a 2004 film that featured a not-yet-famous Emily Blunt as a rich girl slumming it with a tomboy townie.
Pariah should be a special, important film for gay teens and their parents. On television, Glee delivers regular pep talks about how fine it is to be young and gay. But it remains true that there are a lot of parents out there in the real world who are more like Audrey — tense, terrified and ungenerous — than Kurt’s awesome dad on Glee. There’s nothing cartoonish about her, though; one of Rees’s most impressive accomplishments is treating her with enough compassion so that we don’t hate her. We just want her to see how strong and beautiful her kid is.
(MORE: TIME’s review of The Help)
Arthur is an easier sell, although he has his own reservations. In the convenience store where he works as a security guard, one male patron regularly grouses about lesbians as if they’re an affront to his masculinity and in Parnell’s eyes we see Arthur’s fear that Alike’s sexuality does somehow impact his image as a man. He wants that burgeoning boyishness of hers to be nothing more than an extension of the happy hours they’ve spent playing basketball together. “You know you’re daddy’s girl, right?” he asks Alike as they sit in the car together. She turns away, her face framed in the side mirror. She looks worried, aged beyond her years; this girl doesn’t want to break anyone’s heart.
Rees and cinematographer Bradford Young tend to stay close to Oduye’s expressive, androgynous face — until she smiles in a beautiful burst of teeth and gums, she could be mistaken for a boy — and as a result, Pariah has an rare intimacy and immediacy. But Young, who won the cinematography award at the Sundance Film Festival this year and also shot Restless City, another independent feature made by a young black director, doesn’t over work this or any other technique. He has a beautiful sense of balance. In two key scenes with each of her parents, he pulls back to shoot Alike from a greater distance, letting the camera move jerkily as she’s boxed-in by one parent in their close, stuffy apartment and then later, in a coda to that scene, shoots her and the other parent on a rooftop. The perspective is wide open and the steadiness of the camera work corresponds with Alike’s new found confidence as she shakes off the old constraints; these are filmmakers who truly understand her passage out of the closet.
That translates for the viewer. Whether you are gay or straight, young or old, when Alike, having experienced the magical heat of love and a lash of its pain, holes up in her room to lick her wounds, you feel like you too are face-down in your teenaged bedroom believing the world has come to an end. The beauty of Pariah lies in the liberation of that label; when Alike finally confronts what it means to be an outcast, she finds other doors beyond those she’s always known, and the courage to walk through them. The actress is wonderful, the movie inspiring.