Pariah is simultaneously the most exciting and most frustrating kind of first feature; frustrating precisely because it's so exciting, in fact, and it makes one angry that it couldn't have been even better, particularly because the reason it isn't even better is strictly a failure of nerve: an intuitive filmmaker with no small talent as a writer has apparently concluded that she's not as good as she, in fact, is, and gets to second-guessing her own script and shoring it up with "OKAY DO YOU GET IT HERE IS WHY I AM TRYING TO SAY IN THIS MOMENT" gestures that aren't necessary and frequently stop the film dead for authorial interludes that offend far more than they elucidate.
Expanded from Ree's well-regarded 2007 short of the same name that I have not seen, with the same producer, lead actor, and cinematographer, Pariah is the story of 17-year-old Alike (Adepero Oduye), or Lee for short, a Brooklyn teenager who spends her free time sneaking off and dressing like a boy and hanging out with That Kind of Girl, Laura (Pernell Walker), in defiance of the paranoid ravings of her mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans), who is concerned that Laura is going to give her daughter a bad case of the Lesbian. Too late for that, and Audrey's attempts to church the gay out of Alike end up serving only to increase the girl's self-assurance give her the fortitude to come out to her mother and her doting father (Charles Parnell) with his own set of secrets.
This is at heart a completely pure iteration of one of the most ancient branches of queer cinema: the coming out drama. The conflict that drives Pariah is, in its totality, "how will Alike be able to tell her parents that she is a lesbian, and what will their response be?" A musty and frequently not-very interesting story, though Pariah has a whole lot of secret weapons in its corner: first, there is the added racial dimension, given the added cultural animus of homosexuality in African-American communities compared to others (it's hard to imagine a movie about a white girl coming out that could properly earn the title Pariah, don't you think?); a story about a black teenage lesbian is probably not unique in the whole world, though with my limited knowledge of both black cinema and queer cinema, I cannot think of any previous movie that adopts this specific sort of protagonist.
Secondly, there is Rees's energetic aesthetic, which shifts eagerly from the realist style favored by indie filmmakers telling stories about urban life - grainy, underlit interiors, raggedy handheld cameras - into a neon-soaked dreamworld of nightclubs and all the places outside of Alike's home and school, where she's able to be herself and not worry about the approval of her family, classmates, or anyone else, and then back to realism. But the insight Rees has is to start mixing these two modes up, intruding the more abstract, surreal colors of Alike's "true self" scenes into the main fabric of the movie as she grows more certain of herself and more defiant of her parents' - that is, her mother's - conservative rules not just for how she can act, but who she can be. It's an audacious way of building a movie, and it marches right up to the edge of not working: it violates the apparent compact the film has made with its viewer that this is all going to be a nice exercise in observational realism and building up a very specific vision of a very specific place. And certainly, Pariah is good in those terms; this is a story of a particular young woman in a particular place, and the precision with which Rees depicts those particularities is a very important part of the film. But ultimately, that specificity doesn't prove to be the only thing that matters, nor is it even the most important, and the specific ways in which the director violates the reality of her movie are pointed and unnervingly effective, and the sign of a filmmaker who shall be very much worth following in the years to come.
The third and maybe most important thing elevating Pariah is the outstanding performance of Adepero Oduye. She is not the only good actor in the movie; I was particularly delighted by Kim Wayans's strained feelings of love and horror, particularly in the devastating final scene. Indeed, there's hardly a single bad performance, although Aasha Davis's turn as the religious girl who initiated Alike into the world of sex is annoyingly one-note. But Oduye is on another level entirely from the rest of the cast: she has the authoritarian command of the camera that marks a for-real movie star, but she never once coasts on that, instead probing and digging and battering herself against the part, presenting one of the most ravaging onscreen depictions of the self-loathing and confusion and depression of life stuck in the closet that I have ever seen. And again, that's coming from someone who's not a queer film specialist, but part of what makes Oduye's performance so special is that it doesn't attempt to pigeonhole itself in terms of ideologies or sexuality; it is first and foremost a study of a teenager being torn apart by the gulf between where she is and where she wants to be, and it is a great and harrowing version of that, even as she is great at presenting the part's specificity when that's what is required.
Truth be told, with Oduye in its corner, the film didn't have to do anything else; her performance could, in a vacuum, tell us all we need to know about the character and her journey. That Rees has a cunning visual scheme to help as along the way is just an added bonus. Why, oh why, then, is the script such a shakey hodgepodge of truly extraordinary scenes (everything in the first ten minutes; the last scene, a funny and smart bit involving Alike's desire to acquire a strap-on; the stuff involving her sarcastic but seemingly nonjudgmental sister), with such a stiff narrative structure that feels like a lesbian Stations of the Cross. and far too many instances of dialogue where this character or that - Alike's parents especially - announce their internal monologues with bellowing obviousness? It's a bit jarring to have so much of the film imply and trust us to follow along, and then once we've done so, hit us square between eyes with a thematic 2x4? There's the stuff of a revelatory first feature in Pariah, but not with that script; with that script, it's merely a promising effort, smart and sensitive and intermittently great.