In Pariah, former Nashvillian Dee Rees invigorates the coming-out movie 

To Be Young, Gifted, Black and Gay

To Be Young, Gifted, Black and Gay
click to enlarge Pariah

Pariah

Pariah, the first feature by former Antioch resident Dee Rees, tells a powerful story about living in multiple worlds with commendable honesty and integrity. An assured, deeply felt portrait of a teenage lesbian facing what life holds beyond her Brooklyn neighborhood, it offers neither excessive optimism nor negativity, while avoiding stereotypes in its depiction of community and family life.

Adepero Oduye makes a spectacular debut as 17-year-old Alike, an overachieving A student with a natural curiosity about many things. It's a role that must reflect universal struggles as well as the specifics of growing up black and lesbian, and Oduye is up to the challenge. Alike is not only grappling with the ordinary pangs of adolescence —body changes, mood swings, rebellion against her parents — but discovering romance and love as a gay teen. That isn't just a dangerous situation in her neighborhood: it's trouble in her own home, forcing her to tiptoe around her staunch Christian mother (Kim Wayans) and her supportive but distant cop father (Charles Parnell).

Alike's sister Sharonda (Sahre Mellessee) knows she's a lesbian and isn't concerned: Some of the movie's funniest scenes involve their matter-of-fact exchanges. But her parents want neither to accept nor deal with the situation, even as their own marriage crumbles. Their tense, tentative exchanges with Alike allow Rees to explore the complex, thorny problem of homophobia in the black community. To Rees' credit as writer and director, she doesn't use the parents' inability or refusal to acknowledge their daughter's sexual identity as a pretext to turn them into monsters. Nor does she demonize the mother's religion, choosing instead to show how otherwise good people's bewilderment and fear makes them do and say ultimately destructive things, even when they think they're being helpful.

Where Alike blooms is on the street, and in Pariah's early scenes Rees establishes how she operates within her dual universes. She shifts into a different gear as she toys with her identity, even her gender, changing clothes and adopting mannerisms and language that make her seem more at ease. But she's not nearly as sexually advanced or confident as her best friend Laura (Pernell Walker), part of the circle known as AGs (aggressive girls) at the lesbian hangout they frequent. Introverted where the AGs are boisterous and cocky, drawn as much to punk and alt-rock as to the hip-hop that dominates their tastes, Alike eventually finds the path they represent as confining as her parents'.

Pariah originated as an award-winning 2007 short, and Rees has done a skillful job fleshing it out into a feature. Even when the incidents are staples of lesbian coming-of-age dramas — like Alike's relationship with a church-going teen (Aasha Davis) whose curiosity adds another level of confusion — she stages them with an eye for fresh detail and offhand, overheard realism. Formerly an intern for Spike Lee, Rees evidently learned lessons from him about how to depict a neighborhood's essence. The corner stores and street corners take on lives of their own in Bradford Young's cinematography: his backdrops of Brooklyn's Fort Greene area give Pariah a gritty, realistic fabric.

Though she doesn't ignore larger social questions, Rees never lets them overwhelm the story of one individual's growing up. If the events in Pariah weren't ripped from experience, they play that way. She brings welcome restraint and valuable insight to material that in lesser hands could have become either overdone soap opera or pure propaganda. Not only does Rees avoid those traps, she brings a new voice to an indie scene that's sometimes as predictable and weary as its blockbuster brethren. Like her remarkable heroine, she's finding her own way.

Following the 7 p.m. Friday show, representatives from Black Pride and the Oasis Center's Just Us youth program will host a discussion of the movie.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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