What a nice sly touch that “Pariah” could pass for one of those “black-sounding” baby names studied by the authors of “Freakonomics.” That the title of writer-director Dee Rees’ feature debut stresses instead the dictionary definition of the word seems like playing its game a little too, well, straight. But then, reflexive prudence is after all part of what it’s about.
Coming of age is familiar movie stuff, but “Pariah” functions also as an almost comically selective case study: How to be a queer teenager of color in today’s striving lower-middle-class Brooklyn. In this obviously personal project, informed by Rees’ own experiences (and elaborated from her 2007 short film of the same name), that practically balletic feat of social navigation gets at least some of the dance it deserves.
Alike (Adepero Oduye), a clever high schooler and closeted lesbian, is learning who she is by ruling out who she’s not. Her name is pronounced “Ah-lee-kay,” or reduced to “Lee,” depending which of her parents has said it, and what claim on her they’ve each made. “Incognegro” is the nickname offered by her out bull-dyke pal Laura (Pernell Walker), with a judicious mixture of affection and contempt. Although not without its fascinations, Laura’s scene — the raunchy strip club, the brash hip-hop chic — seems like too much for Lee, who’s shy and sweet and still a virgin, and certainly it’ll never fly with mom or dad.
Her mother (Kim Wayans), a status-conscious medical technician, dotes on Lee with denial couched in repressive religiosity; her father (Charles Parnell), a cop, inclines toward a more supportive stance but can’t seem to help shutting himself off within his own churlish secrets. Lee’s kid sister (Sahra Mellesse) cares less about identity politics than about whether a fraying sibling bond can be shelter enough from the storms of their parents’ shouting matches.
With her whole family thus stifled by ingrained homophobia, it should come as no surprise that Lee has a notebook full of poetry. Inevitably her writing has to do with the anguish of self-categorization — whether to check herself off as butch, femme, bi-curious, or other. Her mother’s attempt to replace the unapproved Laura with a church-friend’s daughter (Aasha Davis) doesn’t go quite as expected, in promising ways, but of course promises among fragile people can be risky. A boiling over ensues, some of which seems forced, some touchingly natural, and viewers’ opinions likely will differ on which is which.
Having been developed via Sundance lab, “Pariah” seems fated to a certain manner of narrative heavy-handedness. For all the modish shallow focus of Bradford Young’s cinematography, it still has a whiff of indie-style After-School Special, and the sense of an individual personality workshopped into weary, festival-slick homogeneity. Yes, Spike Lee is one of the film’s executive producers, but there are 14 others.
Thankfully, Rees maintains her generosity and good instincts. She has the sense to explore her themes not just with signifiers but also with personal gestures. Performed alone on a city bus or in a school bathroom stall, Lee’s assimilation-anxious outfit changes seem so shamefully furtive and dignity-depriving — neither a drag liberation nor a superheroic secret identity shift, but instead and rather grimly the opposite of both. In one forlornly funny moment she’s reduced to fumbling with a flesh-colored strap-on, the flesh in question being white.
Message-movie context aside, Lee’s never-been-kissed routine might easily have gotten Barrymoreishly cloying, but it benefits greatly from Oduye’s powerful, unsentimental presence. It seems miraculous that an actor so comfortable with the camera’s attention could register a character so uncertain of how to be looked at. “Luminous” is the word many critics already have used to describe her, correctly, but something about that particular consensus seems borderline bigoted in itself, as if we all need a beam of reassurance when among so many dark movie faces.
In any case, the makers of “Pariah” deserve much credit for their magnanimity. And for that which makes any coming-of-age story, or coming-out story, worth being a story at all: the authority of empathy.