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Terrific acting helps 'Pariah' transcend familiar story line

  • Kim Wayans (left) and Adepero Oduye in a scene from "Pariah."

    Focus Features

    Kim Wayans (left) and Adepero Oduye in a scene from "Pariah."

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By Robert Horton
Herald Movie Critic
@citizenhorton
Published:
  • Kim Wayans (left) and Adepero Oduye in a scene from "Pariah."

    Focus Features

    Kim Wayans (left) and Adepero Oduye in a scene from "Pariah."

When gay moviemakers began putting a spin on the traditional coming-of-age story, it was a way of breathing new life into a tried-and-true movie format. But even that spin got a little old after a while.
So Dee Rees, the writer-director of the Sundance Film Festival success "Pariah," had her work cut out for her (she expanded this feature from a 2007 short film of the same title). In plot terms, this is a relatively straightforward story about a 17-year-old from Brooklyn, Alike (played by Adepero Oduye), who is still defining herself but is pretty sure she's a lesbian.
Her brassy best friend Laura (Pernell Walker) is aware of this, and together they visit a few gay clubs as a way for the cautious Alike to get used to the idea.
Naturally, Alike's mother (Kim Wayans) is not keen on Laura hanging around her daughter (Mom provides girly clothes for Alike, hoping that her "tomboy" phase will surely pass soon).
Both of Alike's parents are in denial about something that seems obvious to others. Her father (Charles Parnell), with whom she enjoys a warm relationship, hears mutterings down at the barbershop about his daughter, but otherwise it doesn't seem to occur to him that his kid might be gay.
In outline form, the film is not unusual: At some point Alike will come out to her parents, and it won't be easy, but some sort of message of determination and spirit will prevail.
And, yes, that happens. What makes the movie notable is the freshness and honesty of the acting, and director Rees's calculated visual approach, which makes the movie look like a dream the main character might be having.
This is definitely not an "Afterschool Special." Life's awkward moments are caught in all their gawky detail; the moment when Alike's younger sister stumbles on her sibling doing some experimenting is especially cringe-worthy.
Adepero Oduye is engaging as Alike, withholding her million-watt smile as though protecting herself from exposure. Wayans and Parnell are terrific as the parents, and Aasha Davis navigates a tricky role as a church-going teen enlisted to straighten out Alike and keep her away from bad influences.
The movie doesn't get everything right, and Rees doesn't know how to pull back from the overstated moments. But in its willingness to go into embarrassing places and explore, "Pariah" qualifies as a promising effort.
"Pariah" (3 stars)
A 17-year-old girl (Adepero Oduye) in Brooklyn is pretty obviously gay, although her parents can't see it (or are in fierce denial). This debut film from director Dee Rees has a calculated visual approach and some terrific acting, which in the end is more important than the occasional overstated moments. It's definitely not an "Afterschool Special."
Rated: R for nudity, language.
Showing: Harvard Exit
Story tags » MoviesLGBT

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