PLOT: A black lesbian teenager struggles to find, and be, herself. RATING R (sexual content, language)
BOTTOM LINE: Gripping and honest, a first-rate debut by writer-director Dee Rees.
CAST: Adepero Oduye, Charles Parnell, Kim Wayans, Aasha Davis
There's a toughness to "Pariah" that matches the toughness of its heroine -- 17-year-old Alike (Adepero Oduye), a black lesbian living in Brooklyn -- and also reflects the artistic toughness of its director, Dee Rees, in refusing to embrace easy sentiment or cliches.
The gay coming-of-age story's been done, but "Pariah" has something fresh to say, largely about the knotty complexities of love, and how they might keep someone in the closet: How badly do you need to be free, to hurt the people you love?
For Alike, those people include her religious mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans), who takes refuge in the divine to deny what she should see with her own eyes; and her police detective father, Arthur (Charles Parnell), who elects willful blindness to what is very obvious to everyone else about Alike, and harder and harder to conceal.
Among its other virtues, "Pariah" confronts aspects of the gay struggle that are often overlooked on screen, and does so with enormous energy and brilliant visuals (Brandon Young shot the film). The performances are uniformly first-rate, though a couple stand out: Aasha Davis, for instance, as Bina, the supposedly straight daughter of one of Audrey's co-workers; and Parnell, who would be a sympathetic dad in any film, but especially one in which a father's love is such a blinding force.
What Alike wants is a love life, an oasis amid her own hopes, crises and confusions and her parents' failing marriage. What audiences want is what "Pariah" delivers: a chance to make an emotional investment in a character who's worth it.