At a time when Hollywood can seem dominated by super-sized shoot-em-up movies, writer-director Dee Rees knew she was swimming against the tide when she penned her first feature-length dramaticfilm, “Pariah,’’ about a lesbian teenager trying to navigate the particulars of coming out to her closed-minded family and community.
And that was OK, Rees says of the movie - an artistic pursuit and somber mission - which opens in the Boston area on Friday, “because I knew the story would resonate in its difference and in its normalcy, and because ‘Pariah’ simply reflects real life. And in some ways I had experienced what you see in the film.’’
That real life isn’t pretty. According to advocacy group PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), gays and lesbians are victims of hate crimes seven times as often as straight peers. Nearly 30 percent of gay and lesbian juveniles drop out of high school in the face of frequent harassment over their sexuality. Half of gay and lesbian juveniles say they’ve been rejected by their parents. And 40 percent of homeless American teenagers are gay or lesbian.
What you see in the film is 17-year-old Alike (pronounced A-LEE-KAY), a Brooklyn kid and would-be author played impeccably by actress Adepero Oduye, struggling as she winds down her senior year of high school to deal with all the angst that usually plagues teens in her position, from sexuality to grades, goals, and defining personality.
But Alike’s stakes are higher than many teens’ because she is a lesbian who doesn’t know how to come out to her strict, religious mother (Kim Wayans) and old-school police detective father (Charles Parnell), and is even unsure of how her sexuality should influence her personality or vice versa.
Through her stormy journey in “Pariah,’’ Alike’s foil and muse - her best friend Laura (Pernell Walker), a tough-on-the-outside lesbian and high school dropout, pushes her to “be real’’ but only to the extent that Laura is happy with the reality.
Further complicating Alike’s struggle is the cultural shadow cast on homosexuals in some quarters of the black community, a place where her mother believes being gay is a mortal sin.
“This is partly an autobiographical story,’’ Rees, 33, says during a recent interview in Boston. “I was Alike in the sense that coming out as a younger woman was not always an easy process for me. I may not have experienced the violent elements of her life, but I know what she went through. I’m a Christian. I was raised a Protestant, a Methodist. Understanding me was not always easy for my parents. And I know that it’s a more common experience than some people either want to admit or even realize.’’
One goal was to provide hope to closeted homosexuals and encourage their families to rally around them. But Rees also wanted that “common experience’’ to register. “It was important to me that people - even those who don’t know or don’t know they know any lesbian or gay youth - watch this film and see themselves or their children,’’ she says.
“Pariah’’ isn’t Rees’s first rodeo. She wrote “Eventual Salvation,’’ a documentary about her grandmother’s return to Monrovia, Liberia, to help rebuild the war-torn country. And she’s written and directed several short films, including another work called “Pariah’’ (2006) that inspired her current feature.
Rees’s biggest career score, though, may have been getting famed director Spike Lee to executive produce the long-version “Pariah.’’ She got to know Lee in 2005 when she served as an intern for his 40 Acres and a Mule production company, working on “Inside Man,’’ a politically tinged bank heist feature starring Denzel Washington, and later on “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts,’’ Lee’s HBO documentary about Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans.
In addition to Lee’s backing, “Pariah’’ benefits from a star-caliber performance by Oduye, a youthful looking 33-year-old who says the film’s universal themes were a major draw.
“I got it. I got her [Alike], because growing up and trying to be yourself and be what other people want you to be is difficult under any circumstances,’’ Oduye says. “But it can be especially difficult when those other people are people you love and want to please.’’
To help prepare for the role, Oduye read “Zami: A New Spelling of My Name,’’ the autobiography of lesbian Caribbean American poet and activist Audre Lorde, who grew up in New York City, married, had children, and divorced before she came out.
Setting sexuality aside, Oduye, a first-generation Nigerian immigrant to the United States, felt she could relate to “Zami,’’ and to “Pariah,’’ because her own identity was nearly permanently shaped by a father who wanted her to become a doctor.
“I had gone so far as to research medical schools, and I studied and graduated pre-med from college,’’ she says. “I loved my father so much. And our relationship was so good. But it was not me. He passed away while I was in school, and as I came to grips with his death I began to be more open with myself about my life and where I needed to be. And being a doctor was not what I wanted to do with my life.’’
An acting class taken on a whim while she studied at Cornell University “awakened my soul,’’ Oduye says. “And I knew that’s what I wanted. I had always known, but that really sealed it for me.’’
Even though “Pariah’’ cost less than $500,000 to make and was filmed in just 18 days, it continues to pay dividends. The film debuted at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, where crew member Bradford Young won the Excellence in Cinematography award. In November Rees got the “breakthrough director’’ nod at the Gotham Independent Film Awards. And Oduye’s turn as Alike landed her in the Hollywood Reporter’s 2011 Next Gen list of rising stars under the age of 35.
Still, both Rees and Oduye agree their best experiences have been gauging audience reaction after screenings of the film. Oduye says she’s observed screening audiences go from skeptical and borderline angry to weepy. And Rees says she’s seen her share of frowns and smirks change, too.
“I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen at the beginning of the film with their arms crossed in that stubborn way,’’ Rees says, chuckling. “And by the end of the film they’re either applauding with others or at a minimum their attitude and look have changed, telling me the film touched them.
“People go into topics that we call ‘controversial,’ like this one, thinking they know what it means to be something. And it means so much to me that some people are walking away from ‘Pariah’ understanding that simply being you isn’t always simple.’’James H. Burnett III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamesburnett.