Thursday, December 24, 2009

Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire (2009)

It's not easy trying to keep up with great movies when you live in a small market. Only mainstream, wide-release films are truly available to me, while smaller, limited-release films require at least an hour's drive, if they are available at all. As a result, it has been increasingly difficult to see any awards-grabbing films while they are in theatres; usually I have to wait until they are on DVD before I can view them (in fact, just a few days ago I saw Revolutionary Road for the first time). So it was incredibly fortunate that I had the opportunity to see Precious here.
Of course, it is an interesting time for Precious: just one month ago, it was destined to win Best Picture from myriad groups, including the Oscars, but now the backlash has begun, and Up in the Air and The Hurt Locker have taken over the frontrunner status. But like the film's heroine, Precious should not be ignored.
Precious is built on a very, very depressive premise: an overweight Harlem teenage, pregnant with her second child (both of her children are the product of being raped by her father) deals with her education (she is illiterate) and her abusive mother. A premise like this can go two ways: its either going to be a moving experience or its going to be bogged down by its own subject matter. The screenplay, written by first-time writer Geoffrey Fletcher, provides a compelling look inside Precious' life, and director Lee Daniels does a fantastic job of providing insight into her mind, wisely balancing the harsh reality of her life with the flights of fancy of the life she wishes she could have. Both men deserve attention for their work here.
The real strength of Precious, however, is in the acting. This is an example of a film with a pitch-perfect cast, each performer unwilling to pander to treachly sentiments. In particular, enough cannot be said about the brave, brilliant performance of Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe as Precious. Making her film debut, Sidibe layers Precious in a way that allows us to see who she really is: peel away the abuse and hardship, and underneath is a girl who just wants to be able to provide for her children. She also recognizes the tragedy of her character: as much as she aspires to be a great mother, behind her eyes the audience can see that she's having to sacrifice her own welfare for her children. Its a harrowing truth that history will repeat itself, and that Precious and her children will never rise above their situation, but Sidibe's performance makes you believe that she can overcome.

Believe the hype: Mo'Nique is a one-woman powerhouse as Mary Jones, Precious' deadbeat, abusive mother. Mo'Nique plays a truly dispicable character: a mother who hates her child (because she "stole" her man), physically and verbally abusing her, neglecting her grandchildren, refusing to work and living off welfare. When its time for a visit from a social worker, though, she makes sure that everything seems acceptable, putting on an act that both false in its sweetness and disturbing in how convincing it is. She's the kind of woman who makes you hate her one minute, such as when she carelessly tosses her infant grandson, and almost makes you feel sympathy for her the next, such as when she begs a social worker (played with stunning grace by an unrecognizable Mariah Carey) to reunite her with Precious. Despite how horrendous, perhaps even "evil," her character is, Mo'Nique never relents in her conviction to bring her to life. Her performance may very well be the best performance of the year.
Though its not only the two leads who deliever. In what could have been a standard teachers-can-change-the-world role, Paula Patton turns in a fantastic performance as Precious' teacher at Each One Teach One, being both hard-nosed and sympathizing, willing to do whatever it takes for the welfare of her students. Carey, as I previously stated, is unrecognizable as Miss Wiess, a social worker whom Precious visits for welfare checks. Her performance is almost enough to make one forgive Glitter. And Lenny Kravitz shows up briefly as a nurse who takes care of Precious after she gives birth. Through these performances, director Lee Daniels has proven himself to be an actors' director, who will hopefully turn in more ensemble films in the future.
Precious is a film that is built on a story that is harsh in its reality, making it a difficult movie to stomach. But it succeeds mostly on the strength of its steller cast.

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