Although it was a big sensation at Sundance in 2011 (where it won an award for cinematography), Dee Rees' drama Pariah kind of fizzled out by the time it made it to theaters, never expanding beyond a limited release (it never played in here in Las Vegas) and failing to garner any major awards attention. Reviews were positive but relatively muted, and Pariah is a movie that may have suffered from inflated expectations. It's a simple, small-scale story that doesn't break much new ground, although it does set its familiar narrative in a community that isn't often seen in movies, and that proves more compelling than the fairly predictable plot.
It's a coming-out/coming-of-age story, with Adepero Oduye as Alike, an African-American teenager in New York City struggling with her sexual identity. At home, her parents think of her as a tomboy and try to get her to act more feminine, and they don't approve of her extremely butch best friend Laura (Pernell Walker). Laura, in turn, takes Alike out to lesbian nightclubs and tries to pressure her to pick up women. But the shy Alike doesn't fit either of those molds, and finally feels comfortable when she meets the perky Bina (Aasha Davis), who seems completely at ease with her own attraction to women.
Alike's relationship with her disapproving parents (Kim Wayans, Charles Parnell) and tentative romance with Bina follow fairly predictable patterns, and the movie can seem maddeningly slow as it builds up to what is obviously coming next. But writer-director Rees also takes time to develop other characters, giving Laura a subplot of her own and exploring the social isolation that Alike's mother feels at work (without excusing her intolerant behavior). Rees also provides a valuable look at the underrepresented African-American middle class and how it deals with homosexuality. Stories like this have been told before, but not with these kinds of characters, and that intersection is where Pariah succeeds.