One of the most important social movements to occur in the United States in the last couple of years is Dan Savage's It Gets Better project. When have so many people from so many places come together to support a population—in this case, gay teenagers—that's been essentially overlooked or marginalized by society and, too often, their families? You wish the characters in Dee Rees' new film, Pariah, which had great success at Sundance last year, had such a support network. Instead, they must face the tough stuff all teenagers face while keeping their sexual identity under wraps.
Alike (pronounced ah-lee-kay) is a 17-year-old African-American girl who lives a fairly middle-class life in Brooklyn with her family. Her dad (Chris Parnell) is a cop who works long hours; her younger sister (Sahra Mellesse) is a brat; and her mom, Audrey (Kim Wayans), is an uptight, God-fearing woman who just wants her daughters to succeed. The problem is that there's no room in Audrey's plan for Alike, who goes by Leigh when she isn't at home, to be gay.
But gay she is, a virgin lesbian who arrives at school each morning and heads straight to the bathroom to put on her dyke gear and who takes it off before she gets home. Alike is smart and talented, everything a parent should be proud of, but Audrey's worst fear is the one that's right under her nose. In fact, in hopes of getting her to stop hanging around her best friend Laura (Pernell Walker), who wears her sexuality on her sleeve, Audrey forces Alike to become friends with Bina (Aasha Davis), the daughter of a co-worker. But her plan backfires, because Bina, though she says she isn't “gay-gay,” is certainly gay-curious, and Alike finds herself in a situation where she's finally confronting all the emotions that come with first loves, first kisses and first lays.
In many ways, Pariah—opening Friday, Jan. 6, at Hillcrest Cinemas—is a story we've seen before—a shy teenager dealing with spring awakening while in conflict with his or her family. But while the subject matter is similar, the specifics—an urban African-American teen lesbian—are not. It's by no means a perfect film, but it has moments that are really wonderful. Yes, there are some sad, tragically painful parts, as Alike is unbelievably awkward with girls. But the good news is that the reasons she's like that have nothing to do with her being African-American, gay or in an unsupportive home environment; she's like that because she's 17, inexperienced, shy, insecure and all the other things that happen with teenagers, no matter the color of their skin or their sexual orientation. And all of this is held together by a remarkable performance from Adepero Oduye. Her Alike, loosely based on Rees' own experiences, is as defensive as she is warm. Oduye's just a joy to watch, the highlight of the entire movie; her biggest problem is that she's unlikely to get a role this good again, mostly because there are only so many roles like this out there. But this one? She nails it.
It shouldn't be a big deal for a teenager, especially one living in Brooklyn, to be gay these days. But this movie isn't called The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love or The Itty Bitty Titty Committee. It's called Pariah. It's ridiculous and tragic the way Alike's parents respond, but that's how life is in plenty of households across the country. And many of those kids aren't as talented, smart and resourceful as Alike is. The real tragedy isn't her household—it's how many households are even worse.