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Adepero Oduye in "Pariah"

Focus Features,

PARIAH

★★ out of four stars

Rating: R for sexual content and language.

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'Pariah': Coming up - and out - in Brooklyn

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT
  • January 19, 2012 - 2:30 PM

Her name is Alike but she's different. The 17-year-old heroine of Dee Rees' Sundance award-winning film pronounces her name "a-Lee-kay," which is just one facet of her outsider status. We first encounter her at an underground lesbian nightclub, where her butch roughneck wardrobe can't disguise her skittish manner and nervous, darting eyes. Outside the club, she changes her baggy pants, rugby shirt and ball cap for feminine clothing before returning to her God-fearing parents' apartment.

Although Alike (Adepero Oduye) accepts her sexuality, she's hesitant to reveal the truth to her family, and not self-assured enough to lose her virginity. Alike's brassy gal pal Laura (Pernell Walker), an out lesbian, wants to set her up with a suitable girlfriend. Pulling in the opposite direction, Alike's overprotective mother (Kim Wayans), who senses her daughter's identity but denies it, has handpicked a churchgoing "good girl" as the ideal best friend for her daughter. Alike's relationship with Bina (Aasha Davis) develops with unintended, but entirely unsurprising, consequences.

Rees brings a heartfelt connection to the material, based on her own coming-out story, but the film's ingredients aren't the freshest. Black, gay, prejudice, disapproving family, coming out, coming of age, Brooklyn -- it's like indie-film bingo. On the basis of such journal entries as "My spirit takes journey/My spirit takes flight/and I am not running/I am choosing," Alike is presented as a gifted poet. Despite Oduye's natural, unaffected performance, the character feels more like a screenwriter's abstraction, a message-movie mouthpiece for the concerns of disenfranchised minority lesbians.

Not all the characters are so pinched. The film really comes alive in Alike's interactions with her doting but obtuse father (television veteran Charles Parnell), an NYPD detective who can't see what's right in front of his face. He can't imagine that his angel's tomboy tendencies are a lifestyle, not a passing phase. And as her mother, Wayans gets to the compellingly human core of a prudish, lonely woman. If Alike were a similarly rounded individual rather than a filmmaker's construct, the story of her emancipation would be inspirational. I applaud the intention, not the execution. Good intentions do not a movie make.

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