Quick, off the top of your head, name all the well-made movies you can think of about the real lives of young lesbians. Okay, now name all the well-made movies about the real lives of young black lesbians. Now go lift a car off the ground with one hand while reciting the alphabet backwards, because they're equally difficult tasks.
That's the challenge facing Pariah, a semi-autobiographical drama from filmmaker Dee Rees. When there aren't many players on the field, the spectators want those players to muscle in, take the ball and run. They might not be interested in the gentle, emerging-butterfly analogy Rees decides to rest on top of her troubled teen's journey. And that would be their loss, because while Pariah is as quiet and sensitive as its teenage poet Alike (Adepero Oduye), it's never phony, simple or trite.
Alike lives with her younger sister, her cop father and her difficult, religious mother. She wears pretty, girly clothes to school and changes into tougher, more aggressive gear along the way, adjusting herself to be more like the crew of butch young lesbians she's begun hanging out with. It's typical teenage identity experimentation, and the experiment is proving successful with everyone except her family. And what's most successful about Rees's approach is that family battles are only one part of the story, not the main event. Alike has more going on than simple persecution and she's determined not to let anyone get in her way.
If you're a regular viewer of indie films, and especially gay-themed indie films, then this kind of clear-eyed emotional significance is something you've seen other movies aim for. And you've also been annoyed by seemingly endless ways they find fail at it. But here, the stripped down approach maintains a level of restraint that will win you over even if you know you've walked down this block before.
Most importantly, you'll be introduced to Adepero Oduye. Fans of the FX series Louie have already seen her. It was in the episode where Louis C.K. is sexually assaulted by his dentist and meets Osama Bin Laden in a drug dream. In the second half of the show, he haplessly flirts with a beautiful African-American grocery store clerk played by Oduye. He follows her home on the subway and goes for broke trying to get her to give him the time of day. She shuts him down mercilessly. Besides a few short films, that's Oduye's resume, a memorable guest spot on TV's coolest un-sitcom and now a tough, vulnerable performance in movie that's probably going to become a personal talisman for young lesbians of this moment in the same way that films like Show Me Love and Beautiful Thing found their own appreciative audiences in the 1990s, a kind of how-to guide to getting by. Not a bad way to kick-start a career.