You can glean a lot about Alike (Oduye), the protagonist of Dee Rees's Sundance-award-winning debut, before she utters a single word. Decked out in a butch B-boy uniform in a sapphic underground club in Brooklyn, this wide-eyed closeted teen soaks in a lesbian subculture that's both liberating and scary to her; as a stripper approaches Alike, the younger woman shyly turns tail and flees. When our heroine finally speaks, she's pleading with her best friend (Walker) to get off the dance floor and hit the road. The twosome talk chummy trash about how many phone numbers Alike didn't get, and once her cohort takes off, our heroine changes into her "feminine" clothes on the bus before sneaking home, where she lives under the watchful eyes of her religious, suspicious mom (Wayans).
Establishing character, conflict and environment with astounding economy in the film's first ten minutes, Rees demonstrates the sort of filmmaking chops and personal storytelling (the director claims she drew on her own coming-out experience) that suggests the low-key epiphanies of Amerindie cinema at its best. But as clunky subplots and soap operatics start to nudge their way into the mix, the filmmaker seems unable to maintain that early tone and focus; you don't doubt the film's authenticity regarding interfamilial pressures and homophobia in African-American communities, or the heartbreak of mistaking a crush's same-sex experimentation for romance. When the representations of these things are handled so clumsily and with such heavy-handed melodramatics, however, you wish the subtlety of those early scenes hadn't been relegated to its own outsider status.
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear
Watch the trailer