USA (86 mi) 2011 d: Dee Rees
This is a smart film where the nicely edited, loosely structured realism continually feels believable, set in a naturally stylized impressionism where several of the characters prominently emerge as fully developed, but in order to make a film that is accepted by the mainstream the director appears to be holding back relevant interior information, as this teenage, coming of age story is also about coming out as gay, where you finally admit to your friends and family what you’ve been holding back for years, where the latter gets shortchanged somewhat in order for the subject to remain clouded in mystery. Winner as a 27 minute short film in 2007 of the Best Narrative Short at the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, the director has cast the same lead, Adepero Oduye in the role of 17-year old Alike, an extremely shy, straight A student with conflicting feelings about her sexual identity, leaving her without any real friends except one, the openly gay Laura (Pernell Walker), who her overly protective mother (Kim Wayans) despises and treats with contempt, believing she’s a bad influence on her daughter. Alike’s father (Charles Parnell) is a police officer who likely has an affair going on the side, and despite his wife’s concern about Alike’s dress and overall boyish manner, he refuses to even discuss the matter with his daughter, though it’s apparent he has his own issues, as the director feeds a steady stream of derogatory comments directed towards lesbian characters from his male friends and acquaintances. Never once does he intervene. Unlike other black lesbian writers, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, or Alice Mabry, Dee Rees doesn’t go overboard in her contempt of black men, who are otherwise absent in this film, allowing the previously mentioned foul comments to speak for themselves. By contrast, Alike has an extremely supportive black female AP English teacher, one who takes seriously her mentor role, as she’s one of the few characters in the film that encourages free expression, encouraging Alike to dig even deeper. The performances are uniformly excellent, as is Bradford Young’s hand-held cinematography shot largely in Brooklyn, which elevates the seriousness of the subject matter, as the characters gain our interest alongside the provocative opening, where the lyrics of the opening song Khia - Lick My Neck My Back on YouTube (3:36) leave little to the imagination.
Oduye has a natural presence before the camera, even as she continually drifts along with low self-esteem, becoming easily defeated, isolating herself beyond reason, where her sad, adolescent journey through her friends, family, and school leaves her continually feeling exiled and alone. When she goes out to all girl clubs with Laura, she clings to her, afraid of what would happen if she lets go, and while she talks about being interested in other girls, she remains a virgin and has never acted upon her sexual inclinations. One has to wonder why a subject as topical as teen sexuality has to feature someone as young and innocent as Alike, who more realistically would have been exploring her sexual feelings much earlier. The idea of an outwardly gay friend leading her into this seemingly more exotic world than the one she knows feels overly contrived, as does the fact that academically she’s perfect, as often people have literally no one to talk to, where nothing makes any sense, and more often they’re routinely taunted and picked on, ostracized from any acceptable social world. Black culture, in particular, due to the heavy influence of the church, has shown a disgraceful intolerance for gays or gay marriage, where perhaps going to college or joining the military is the first place of common acceptance. Following this lead, Laura has been kicked out of her home by her mother, who refuses to even talk to her, while Alike’s mother has similar religious leanings, where in her view, The Bible does not acknowledge a place for God’s imperfections, so she feels there’s a sense of urgency to somehow persuasively “change” or pray away the gay.
Ironically, it’s at the encouragement of her own mother that she meets another smart and quietly aloof girl at her school, Bina (Aasha Davis), hoping this will cure her of her tendency to fall under Laura’s influence. Bina is the kind of girl that will try anything if she thinks it’s cool, who boldly asserts herself, as she does here, initiating sexual interest, which takes Alike by surprise, not knowing what to make of it. The interplay between Alike and Bina, both with a foot still in the straight world, and through her friend Laura, who is one of the more grounded characters seen in any film recently, really adds a unique dimension not normally associated with teen adolescence, which contrasts beautifully with the more typically entrenched sexually intolerant views of her parents, whose own marriage is not exactly the picture of stability. While there are moments of quiet devastation, what feels real in the film is that nothing comes easy, that feeling battered and bruised is a fairly common teenage experience. The all-female musical soundtrack typically sounds like P.J. Harvey, especially the slow build up from acoustic to rock rage, drawing from local hip hop and Afro-punk talent, which does offer another distinctive voice in the film, much like a Greek chorus, but one that accentuates self-discovery and emotional release, which is a common theme of the film. The story feels timid in its efforts to dig deeper, however, showing the harsh societal rejection, but failing to delve into that internal psychological turmoil of gay admittance, leaving out any sense of real acceptance or identification, leaving the future clouded by an unknown state of ambivalence, which due to her academic intellect is assumed to be bright. But in the end, which may be a cop out, nothing feels resolved or finalized, where there’s not really an ending, but simply a clean break from her past, from that suffocating stranglehold that kept Alike from breathing, always feeling like she was living on borrowed time, continually feeding off of others, never yet herself, always becoming, remaining less of a mystery, but still young and impressionable.