Writer-director Dee Rees insists her first feature, “Pariah,” isn’t a coming-out story. The film, which focuses on Brooklyn teenager Alike (Adepero Oduye), “is more of a coming-into than a coming-out,” Rees says. “With Alike, she knows that she loves women. That’s never a question — the question is how to be that, how to love.”
Alike navigates a minefield of people who offer suggestions on how to be. Her friend Laura (Pernell Walker) tells her that being a lesbian means being as masculine as possible. Her mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans), would prefer that Alike wear pink sweaters and pearl earrings — and not be gay.
“[Alike] is constantly asked to check a box,” Rees says. “And she says, ‘Yeah, I’m a lesbian,’ but then there are 20 more boxes that ask ‘OK, what does that mean?’” Those are the questions Alike addresses throughout the film.
Though “Pariah,” which opens locally on Friday, is Alike’s story, the characters who surround her have a surprising amount of depth — a deliberate choice on Rees’ part. “I really wanted to make sure all the characters had their own lives,” Rees says. “No one is a supporting character in someone else’s life — everyone is the star of their own life.” To ensure that every character got the “star treatment,” Rees wrote a stream-of-consciousness monologue telling “Pariah’s” story from every character’s point of view. “I took that exercise and went back to the script and rewrote scenes so the characters would feel three-dimensional. They’re not just there to serve or hinder the lead character.”
That’s not to say the film has multiple story lines; it’s still Alike’s journey, and the other characters’ stories (her father might be having an affair; Laura apparently lives with her sister because her mother kicked her out) don’t get equal attention. “I didn’t want to go off into too many tangents,” Rees says. “It was enough to suggest it; it was enough to feel it. And, actually, because in this family — where there are secrets, where there’s this passive-aggressive tension — sometimes I think it’s more powerful not to say it. I think the audience is smart, and they get it.”