Vivid photography, true-to-life moments and a wonderful lead performance compensate for some first-timer missteps in debutante writer-director Dee Rees’ “Pariah,” a low-budget coming-out and coming-of-age piece set in the predominantly black neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Pic will surely strike a chord with fests, and an especially resonant one for those with an LGBT bent.
Expanding upon her 2007 short of the same name, Rees developed this feature with the help of the Sundance Institute, and it shows — for good and ill. At times the script feels overly workshopped, with its naturalistic rhythms broken up by a few excessively expository subplots and third-act shifts that arrive with dishearteningly rigid precision. It’s not enough to sink the pic, however, and the best scenes point toward a fine future for the director once her discretion catches up with her skill.
Those sporadic reversions to formula are all the more jarring considering the striking believability of lead actress Adepero Oduye, who is completely effective as bashfully budding 17-year-old lesbian Alike. Dragged along to Gotham gay clubs by butch best friend Laura (Pernell Walker), and pulled in the opposite direction by her girly-sweater-buying mom (Kim Wayans), never-been-kissed Alike searches for a bit of balance in the more grounded girl-next-door, Bina (Aasha Davis). Despite a legit background, Oduye comes across like a non-pro in the best way, her smiles more unrestrained, her sulks more unaffectedly teenage than one would expect from a stage-bred Cornell grad.
A bit too much time is expended on domestic quarrels between Alike’s parents (neither of whom are as well acted as the younger characters), and Alike’s mentorship by a lit professor could have been excised with few side-effects. Yet whenever the film threatens to sink into melodrama, Rees unleashes a crafty knack for springing sharp humor out of unexpected places; one hopes this talent will be honed into a keener weapon in the director’s arsenal as she matures.
Rees certainly has a gift for unconventional yet effective camera placement (shooting primarily on handheld), and d.p. Bradford Young deserves plaudits for his rich use of 35 mm stock. Other tech credits are fine for the budget.