Coming of age is hard enough without also worrying about coming out; this double-trouble is presented with sensitivity and powerful immediacy by first-time writer-director Dee Rees. It is a striking debut: visually rich, emotionally complex and graced by strong performances from top to bottom.
No performance here is stronger than Adepero Oduye, who convincingly plays an extremely bright but profoundly conflicted Brooklyn teen named Alike (ah-LEE-kay). We first see her in a rowdy lesbian strip club, gawking at lovely ladies dangling from the poles, but too shy to get a dance, or to approach any of the pretty girls at the bar.
On the bus ride home, Alike makes her protective, older best friend Laura (Pernell Walker) get off early, so she won't see Alike change out of her butch cap and baggy jeans — into something more sparkly and feminine.
The girlier outfit is for the benefit of her stern, pious mother, Audrey, sharply played by Kim Wayans, better known for the comedy chops she shares with her famous brothers. Audrey has her suspicions and fears about her oldest daughter's orientation, but her more even-keeled and affectionate husband, Arthur (Charles Parnell), is more realistic. Dad is a cop, and more keenly aware of the struggles his child will face being gay in a tough, urban culture, and while never quite tipping his hand that he knows, he assures her that she's "Daddy's girl," and always will be.
Scenes like that, and a later one where Alike makes a breakthrough and kisses a girl, are so thoughtfully presented, graceful and intimate, that they make the few more awkward moments seem clunky in comparison.
Rees sometimes oversteps, and hasn't yet found a way to flesh out all her characters, particularly Audrey, who despite Wayans' best efforts becomes a bit one-note. It's a shame that she is never given room to breathe or develop, because the actress is so poised.
Visually, Rees shows flair, soaking pivotal scenes in monochromatic washes of red and purple, reminiscent of old Blue Note album covers. These hues are steeped in meaning, as is almost every moment in Pariah, which spins a familiar story in a way that feels personal and relatable. With this much promise, we can hope for great things from Rees, and like the celebrities in the current PSA campaign would tell the film's wounded but quietly strong heroine: It gets better.
Opens Friday at the Main Art Theatre, 118 North Main Street, Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.