From its opening scenes, Pariah, a vital first feature worked up from a short film by director Dee Rees, draws you into a world largely untapped in American black cinema. The setting is a nightclub where AG's — "Aggressive Lesbians," members of a subculture marginalized within their own black community, let alone the rest of the world — can frolic with joy and humor, acting out a raucous, good-natured belligerence denied them in their everyday lives.
Yet the movie is anything but combative. Pariah is a tender, sporadically goofy, yet candid examination of emergent identity, a film whose lack of attitude sets it apart from much of the hard-bitten, thug-life storytelling that's dominated African-American cinema for decades. If anything, its source genre is the coming-of-age movie, and though the universe its freshly hatched lesbian inhabits is all black, Rees is blessedly unwilling to confine herself in any kind of ghetto, whether racial, sexual or aesthetic.
Beautifully played by Adepero Oduye, the movie's heroine, Alike (Ah-lee-kay), is a shy, open-faced teenager, a straight-A student and aspiring poet from a stable family. Though she has no doubt about her sexual orientation, Alike has yet to explore her identity, never mind come out to her folks. She feels closer to her father (Charles Parnell), a handsome police detective, than to her overprotective mother (Kim Wayans). Distracted by their own floundering marriage and by a barely articulated homophobia, both parents seem determined not to know what they undoubtedly do.
The only port in the quiet storm of Alike's life is her best friend, Laura (a very good Pernell Walker), who is out to the world and getting on with life as best she can, given that her own mother has frozen her out for good. Unsure that Laura's AG crowd is for her, Alike fumbles her way into a romantic encounter with vivacious, seemingly assured Bina (Aasha Davis), the daughter of her mother's colleague.
Like most earnest newcomers to love and sex, Alike may be expecting more than the night can deliver. I can't tell you whether her tryst with Bina is love or a hookup, but it's accomplished with such delicate eros that it seems like a benediction any parent might wish for their child.
Rees is an NYU film-school alumna and a protege of Spike Lee, who's one of the film's executive producers, and Pariah is as fresh in its theme and execution as Lee's 1986 first feature, She's Gotta Have It. Meanwhile, the striking palette, shot in Brooklyn in gorgeous deep reds and blues by the talented cinematographer Bradford Young, surely draws inspiration from Lee's 1989 Do the Right Thing.
Yet the movie's expressionist lyricism and wistful mood recall Charles Burnett's 1979 masterpiece, Killer of Sheep, while the hypnotically incantatory dialogue and sympathetic focus on a family saddled with unexpressed anger and sorrow carry echoes of Burnett's quiet 1990 domestic drama To Sleep With Anger.
A hit at last year's Sundance Film Festival, Pariah is the finest coming-of-age movie I've seen in years, the work of a fledgling artist who fully deserves the support she received from the Sundance Institute and other indie promoters of a new generation of black filmmakers.
Yet it's worrying that Rees' distributor, Focus Features, is trying to position the film as a long-shot Oscar winner. Rees needs time and space to grow her abundant talent slowly, and instant fame has rarely been good for a filmmaker as contemplative as she is. Announcing an important decision to her chastened father, Alike tells him quietly, "I'm not running — I'm choosing." Sounds like a plan. (Recommended)