If there were a competition for distilling the Sundance Film Festival aesthetic into a single film, you could do worse than putting your money on Pariah. A semi-autobiographical debut feature about a young African-American lesbian's struggle with her own sexuality and her family's acceptance, rendered in oversaturated colors and shaky handheld camera work — it’s the über-Sundance experience, and while that often implies it's predictable, there are rewards in its telling and, especially, its performances.
Adepero Oduye is captivating as Alike, a straight-A 17-year-old whose closeted existence is becoming a strain on her personal and family life. Writer/director Dee Rees chooses to tell her story on an intimate scale, aiming for street-level grit but stylizing it to a glossy sheen. She succeeds at depicting the fragile world of a teenager, where the dangers are miniscule in the grand scheme but ever-threatening through their own eyes. Alike juggles the flush of first love with the omnipresent horror of discovery, wordlessly switching from baseball cap drag to the little-girl pinks chosen by her suspicious mother (Kim Wayans), expressing not only her reluctance but the shame of her dual identity, the feeling of all eyes being upon her. Wayans' histrionics become overbearing as the truth is revealed, but Charles Parnell's quiet rage at the family he obviously dreams of escaping is palpable.