'Pariah' Review: Coming of Age Yarn Defies Stereotypes

Actress Adepero Oduye may be in her early 30s, but she nails the emotional travails of a sexually confused teen in the new drama “Pariah.”

Oduye is so convincing, and heartbreaking, as a 17-year-old lesbian afraid to come out to her parents that masking her real age deserves some sort of official recognition.

She isn’t the first actress to play a role so much younger than her actual age, but it’s how Oduye makes teen-age angst so universally affecting that transcends an otherwise predictable drama.

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Oduye stars as Alike, an awkward teenager who sneaks away from home whenever possible to hang out with Laura (Pernell Walker), a lesbian pal far more comfortable in her own skin. Alike knows her strict but loving parents won’t accept her sexual orientation, so she keeps that part of her life sectioned off from them.

Alike’s mother (Kim Wayans) wants her daughter to be “normal” and cast aside the tomboy clothes and sullen looks. So the mother introduces Alike to a friend’s daughter (Aasha Davis) hoping the two will strike up a healthy teen friendship.

The pair resist their parents’ motives initially, but they quickly bond over music and common interests. Their friendship grows intimate over time, pushing Alike out of her already narrow comfort zone and forcing her to grow up in a hurry.

Writer-director Dee Rees hardly re-invents the wheel with “Pariah.” A story of a confused teen not seeing eye to eye with her parents is straight out of the Afternoon Special playbook, and the twists in Alike’s story resemble many we’ve seen before. But Rees finds the smaller human moments to make Alike’s story feel freshly spun, like when she overhears some school mates talking about her looks. Alike’s face beams when a pretty student speaks fondly of her, a moment Oduye makes real without overplaying the emotions on display.

Rees orchestrates a few sillier moments that reveal the clumsy way teens embrace their sexual sides. What might have been manufactured in less capable hands plays out as oddly touching, even when Alike dabbles with a sexual toy meant for more adult minds.

The young woman’s parents are portrayed as genuinely confused by their daughter’s demeanor. Her father (Charles Parnell) seems like a standard, strong patriarch, but Parnell makes his character prickly at times when it doesn’t seem warranted. The couple’s marriage is under strain even without factoring in their daughter’s sexual identity.

Oduye gives “Pariah” its shattered soul, but Wayans provides the most compelling character for entirely different reasons. The mother is prim and pretty, a middle-class church goer unable to accept that her daughter may not live a traditional lifestyle. The film doesn’t paint the mother’s faith in the kind of harsh terms too often found in movies today. She’s not demeaned for living a conservative life until her final, shattering scene with Alike.

“Pariah” cuts across social lines to share a story sure to resonate on many levels.