12/29/2011 09:08 am ET Updated Feb 28, 2012

Movie Review: Pariah

One of the intriguing phenomena of the 2008 election was the fact that, while African-Americans voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama for president, that surge of black voters at the polls in California was one of the factors in the passage of Proposition 8, which rendered same-sex marriage illegal in that state (at least for the moment).

That reflected a religious backlash, exposing an intolerance that isn't necessarily culture-specific; fundamentalists are fundamentalists, regardless of ethnicity. Still, it's a brand of prejudice that hasn't been explored in films to the same degree that homophobia in general has.

Still, this year has produced two films that explore minority attitudes toward sexuality: Rashaad Ernesto Green's Gun Hill Road (about a macho Hispanic father's reaction to his son's transgender inclination) and now Dee Rees' Pariah, which explores the life of one young black woman whose parents are in deep denial about the fact that she's a lesbian.

The young woman is Alike (pronounced ah-LEE-kay), but her mother calls her Lee. As played by Adepero Oduye, she's a bright Brooklyn teen who writes poetry and who hides her leisure-time activities from her parents.

Alike spends most of her time with her friend Laura (Pernell Walker), who is too obviously mannish for the taste of Alike's mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans). The church-going Audrey is constantly on Alike to dress with more feminine flair, trying to take her shopping and forcing her to spend time with the daughter of a friend from church, Bina (Aasha Davis), who has some bi-curiousity of her own. Alike's father, Arthur (Charles Parnell), is a cop who is aware of the lesbian scene in Brooklyn where they live. But he, too, is in denial about who his daughter is.

There is a whole canon of films about children coming out to their parents, for better or worse. They tend to follow similar paths: rejection, acceptance, rejection and then acceptance, or some combination thereof. Rees' script is no different; the young person who is struggling with her sexual identity must consider carefully which face she presents to the world, depending on which segment of that world she is interacting with.

It's hard to believe that people still hold this prejudice (to the point of hatred) in what is almost 2012, but there you are. What distinguishes Pariah is less the subject or the story than the performances, particularly by Oduye, Walker and Davis. These three young women bring a vulnerability and openness that is moving and real.

Oduye, in particular, has a shimmering quality, the feeling of a person waiting to emerge from her own shadow, as it were. But Walker also brings a heart-breaking openness; so tough with her friends, she all but crumbles in a scene in which she tries to overcome her mother's glaring disapproval.

If you read a one-line description of Pariah, you'd probably think, well, I've seen that movie before. But Pariah is both watchable and touching, even as it deals with a topic that still can spark controversy and conflict, whether in society as a whole or within individual families.

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