Right off of the bat, what's immediately impressive about Pariah, the narrative debut of writer/director Dee Rees, is its lack of sensationalism or melodrama. Though it opens in a club with primarily lesbian clientele, it's clear that the film's point isn't to be exploitative or shameless in dealing with its subject matter. It may be a little cluttered in terms of subplots, but at its heart, Pariah is a strongly acted character piece that has yet to earn the recognition it deserves.
Rees' subject is Alike (nicknamed 'Lee'), a bright, 17-year old Brooklyn girl who is also deeply in the closet, at least when it comes to her family. And as the film traces Alike's developments, and the way her orientation affects relationships with friends, family members, and schoolmates, Rees resists the urge to pull out any cheap, overwrought tricks. Though there are plenty of scenes that involve heated exchanges and even physical violence, Rees has the ability to ground so much of the movie with its intimate, lived-in feel. Adepero Oduye does lovely, understated work as Alike, creating a character who somehow commands our attention from her first appearance. Other roles, like Alike's 'out' friend Laura (Pernell Walker) or her domineering mother (Kim Wayans) are also expertly filled out, creating an engaging web of characters. Only Aasha Davis' Bina, a forced acquaintance who gradually becomes Alike's friend, comes off as forced, though the impact this has on the film is minimal. Yet while Rees handles each individual scene well as a director, she doesn't quite make the entire story flow together fluidly. The subplot involving Laura, while understandable on a thematic level, doesn't feel necessary, and detracts from the focus on Alike. Similarly, the subplot involving Alike's relationship with her English teacher feels underdeveloped, even though it plays a major role in the film's narrative and thematic conclusion. Small issues like these add up, and they dilute Alike's story, despite its inherent power. In the end, it makes the film sometimes feel a little too academic, despite its obvious categorization as a character piece.