The teenage years can be tough for anyone, but especially for Alike (Ah-lee-kah), a confused Brooklyn high school student being pulled in opposite directions by her feuding parents, friends and mostly her dawning sexuality. Her story makes for a gripping feature directorial debut in Dee Rees’ “Pariah.”
Alike (Adepero Oduye) may not live in a luxurious world but, unlike some of her peers, she would seem to reside in a stable one. She has a doting detective dad (constant TV character actor Charles Parnell) and a churchgoing mom (comedian Kim Wayans making a striking dramatic turn), and she is a good student with a gift for writing poetry.
Yet there are secrets beneath the placid surface.
Her parents’ marriage is in the middle of a slow-motion collapse, and Alike leads a double life. Once outside the house, Alike changes her clothes from girlie to tomboy and hangs out with Laura (Pernell Walker), who is an “out” lesbian and best friend.
Of course, Alike stumbles in her tightrope walk between the two worlds, especially in her exploration of first love with Bina (Aasha Davis). All of that only adds to the conflict between her parents.
Rees, who also wrote the script, keeps the characters grounded in an emotional reality, and that feeling is underscored by the gritty cinematography by Bradford Young.
All the performances resonate with a simmering intensity, especially those of Oduye and Wayans.
If nothing else, “Pariah” should be a launching pad for at least two careers. Rees shows she has what it takes to tell an involving story. But Oduye, who has appeared in small TV parts, is the one you really remember for her sympathetic portrayal of a complex, conflicted character.