(director/writer: Dee Rees; cinematographer: Bradford Young; editor: Mako Kamitsuna; cast: Adepero Oduye (Alike Freeman), Kim Wayans (Audrey Freeman), Charles Parnell (Arthur Freeman), Pernell Walker (Laura), Sahra Mellesse (Sharonda Freeman), Aasha Davis (Bina), Zabryna Guevara (Mrs. Alvarado), Kim Sykes (Mrs. Singletary); Runtime: 86; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Nekisa Cooper; Focus Features; 2011)
“Impressive autobiographical coming-of-age film about a smart but vulnerable African-American teenager struggling to have a meaningful gay relationship and struggling how to tell her middle-class parents that she’s a lesbian.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Dee Rees (“Eventual Salvation“) is the young director-writer of this impressive autobiographical coming-of-age film about a smart but vulnerable African-American teenager struggling to have a meaningful gay relationship and struggling how to tell her middle-class parents that she’s a lesbian. It won the Jury’s Best Cinematography Award at the Sundance Festival of 2011.
The film opens at a raunchy new neighborhood lesbian club with stripper pole dancers and Khia’s lewd song “Lick it” in the background, that’s attended by the 17-year-old virgin Alike (Adepero Oduye) and her protective more street-wise lesbian teenage friend Laura (Pernell Walker). While Laura’s mom abandoned her and she lives with her older sister, Alike lives in comfort at home in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, with her overprotective medical clinic office worker mom, Audrey (Kim Wayans), and her doting police detective father Arthur (Charles Parnell), and frisky straight 15-year-old sister Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse).Though her household situation is strained, as mom is always nagging everybody and is especially on Alike’s case, while dad fends off his devout Christian wife’s barbs with blunt authoritarian replies and tries to never be home by working two jobs and tries to believe his favorite child Alike is fine without probing too deeply to learn something he doesn’t want to hear.At school, Alike, called Lee, excels, especially in math and in a writing course, where her English teacher (Zabryna Guevara) encourages her to be a great writer.
Mom tries her best to break up Lee’s friendship with Laura by introducing her daughter to her workplace colleague’s nice daughter Bina (Aasha Davis), who attends the same school. Surprisingly Bina is in an experimental mood and entices Lee for a one-night stand. Lee is heart-broken when she learns Bina only used her and after sex goes into an unconvincing mood swing as she turns against Lee. Lee is hurt by this severe reaction, since she was serious about her love for Bina. Unable to keep her Sapphic desires secret any longer, Lee tells her folks that she’s a lesbian and leaves home to live with Laura. Luckily Lee’s an excellent student despite her nightly clubbing activities and the high school junior graduates early and gets accepted into a prestigious writing program at Berkeley.
The tension never builds and even though we see Lee’s toxic situation and understand her craving for freedom, we never quite feel that she’s the titular pariah except through her intolerant mother’s eyes. Also that heavy-handed metaphoric butterfly essay read aloud in class and used as an explanation of the closeted girl’s coming out, seemed too contrived and artificial to come from the heart–more like a writer’s device learned in a creative writing class (let’s hope Rees future films don’t go down this old academic road).
Adepero Oduye’s sincere performance gives the film a certain grace and warmth, that gets the story smoothly over all the bumps on the road.
REVIEWED ON 11/18/2011 GRADE: B