THE UNIVERSALITY of director and writer Dee Rees' first major film, Pariah, is underscored on the night we meet its teenaged protagonist, Alike (Adepero Oduye). Riding the bus home from a cruisey lesbian club in Brooklyn, she sullenly disassembles her butch outfit, brushing out her hair and adding earrings, before having to face her mother's scolding for breaking curfew. It's a quintessential hallmark of adolescent experience that immediately sets the tone for a coming-of-age story about a black, gay character—possibly the least sellable combination in Hollywood—that's both deftly relatable and urgently progressive.
The heart of Alike's identity struggle isn't with herself. She's more or less out at school, and her more experienced best friend Laura (Pernell Walker), represents a ready opportunity to further tap into the lesbian community at large. Even if Alike can't quite reconcile her desperate desire for a romantic connection with the casual vibe at the club, her straight-A report cards and excellence as a writer indicate a bright future. The major roadblock is her religious, homophobic mother Audrey (Kim Wayans), who wages a constant, nagging assault on Alike's appearance and social life, wielding a toxic combination of denial and panic. Meanwhile her father Arthur (Charles Parnell) is supportive and loving, but either unbelievably unperceptive or in an even deeper state of denial than his wife.
The cultural environs of Alike's story are at best underrepresented in contemporary cinema, and while its portrayal of friendship and family relationships are poignantly familiar, her sexuality unmistakably colors other heartbreaks. Most notably, the drama in the wake of her first hookup with a supposedly straight friend (Aasha Davis) and a shocking blowout with Audrey paint a straight line toward the continued need for sexual acceptance in our society. Rees' ability to connect the emotional dots so inclusively will help propel this film into landmark status on the timeline of film history—as a gay film, as a black film, and as a film.