There’s a scene in Dee Rees’s debut feature film “Pariah” to which almost anyone who’s survived an awkward adolescence can relate. Alike, the film’s 17-year-old protagonist, sits in her high school’s hallway within earshot of a group of pretty, popular girls talking about the things that pretty, popular girls tend to talk about: who kicked it with whom at what party. The conversation creeps around to “AGs” (a slang term, for lesbians who identify as “aggressive”—think butch, but more black). One of the girls casually mentions that some AGs, like Alike, are cute—if only she’d be harder.
Moments like these help bring home one of the Rees’s biggest achievements with the critically acclaimed film: turning what was once taboo (openly gay teens) into something that’s painfully ordinary (kids struggling to fit in). “Pariah,” which opened with an impressive limited release this past weekend, is Rees’s semi-autobiographic tale of a shy but determined teenage poet growing up in middle class Brooklyn. Alike is comfortable enough with her sexuality, but she’s still uncertain of how to wear it. Tougher still is the work that must be done to bring her family and closest friends into the fold, especially when they’re already waging battles against their own personal demons. The film hinges on the belief that there’s no one way to be young, or black, or queer. And while it’s a struggle to come into any identity, those fights are always punctuated by moments of resilience and triumph.
What’s special about “Pariah” is that it, for the most part, successfully tells many stories at once. Alike’s struggle to live openly with her family is the most prominent. But there’s also her socially isolated mother and her bitter, but protective father. And there are the stories that turn on the underreported brutality hundreds of thousands of queer youth of color face each year.