Friday, November 6, 2009


With all the hype surrounding this movie, I had expected an extremely moving film about the hard knocks of life. That was a huge underestimation on my part. This film relinquishes any preconceived inner-city stereotypes that one might have, and exposes a down right horrific world of destitution and misfortune. To call Precious merely a social statement is like saying that Titanic was about a sinking boat. Director Lee Daniels has created a disarming film that doesn’t force false empathy or emotion from its viewers. The story line alone pushes the audience to feel for these characters without seeming constructed or imposing. With each scene there is a new revelation, some are hopeful but most are disarming. It is a rare occurrence for a movie to entice such a deplorable emotional reaction.

You cannot discuss this movie without considering the book that it was based upon. Not knowing anything about the book itself or having never read it won’t hinder your impression of this film. But it might just make you appreciate the film that much more. Geoffrey S. Fletcher adapted the novel “Push” by Sapphire in a way that maintains the overall sense of the story, right down to the dialog. Much in the same way that Sapphire did, Fletcher purposely implores a dialect that reiterates the main character’s illiteracy. Because the script was written in the first person, told from Precious’ point of view, the choice to spell words phonetically, such as "nuffin'," "git," "borned" and "wif", fiercely adds to the realism of the story. Despite the fact that you don’t actually see the words spelled out on screen. When Precious was first screened at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, it was listed under its original title “Push: Based On The Novel By Sapphire”. But because there was another film entitled “Push” being featured at the same time, Daniels changed it to Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire.

Gabourey Sidibe as Precious
Claireece "Precious" Jones, played by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, is possibly the most unfortunate of characters ever to appear on the silver screen. The hardships she faces in her everyday life are unparalleled and it only seems to get worse. Her parents verbally, sexually and physically abuse her and is an illiterate overweight teenager expecting her second child from her own father. In the opening scene, we find Precious sitting in class, dreamily trying to engage in the lesson, proclaiming, “I like math. I don’t open the book. I just sit there.” So begins a series of voice-overs throughout the film that provide insight into Precious’ random thoughts and explains how she copes with her problems. Sidibe’s breakout performance has been rightfully hailed as one of the most moving performances of the year. Her physical appearance alone resonates this forsaken girl, and not just the fact that she is so morbidly obese. Her weight overburdens her eyes, but nonetheless resonates of someone who been through much hardship. Sidibe consumes the character of Precious so believably that we begin to see them, not as an actress playing a role, but as one in the same.

There are several dream sequences throughout the film of Precious fantasizing about the life she wants. One is of her onstage at the Apollo, acting out a scene from Vittorio De Sica's Two Women and receiving a scarf as a talisman from a red-clad fairy godmother (played by former Essence magazine editor Susan L. Taylor). Another is of her being photographed in paparazzi –like fashion for the cover of a magazine, adorning flashy ensembles and over the top outfits. These scenes transferred much of what Precious envisioned in her mind for the audience. Daniels’ choice to include these sequences takes a bit away from the story itself, but presents an aspect of Precious that simply couldn’t have been done in the book. While I do understand the motives for including these soliloquies, they present a certain level of confusion in the story as to what is real and what is imagined.

Mo'Nique as Mary
The root of Precious’ problems can be attributed to her heinous home life. She lives with her drug addict father Carl and her unemployed dysfunctional mother Mary, played by comedian and talk show host Mo’Nique. From a very early age, Precious is continuously abused by both of her parents. Carl began to sexual molest and rape Precious from a very early age, and as a result Mary develops a severe resentment towards her and is threatened that he prefers their daughter to her. In reaction, Mary abuses Precious, physically, mentally, emotionally, and on a smaller scale, even sexually. Precious’ first child Mongo (short for Mongoloid) lives with Precious’ grandmother, but Mary still claims the baby as a dependant and receives welfare benefits accordingly. Mo’Nique is absolutely astonishing as Mary. She steals every scene she is in with her poignant and terrifying portrayal of this absolute monster of a human being, “You’re a dummy! Ain't no body want you, ain’t no body need you!” There is a riveting scene with Mary, Precious and Ms. Weiss, a social worker played by a makeup-free Mariah Carey, which is as emotionally powerful as anything else we’ve seen this year from anyone. It is quite surprising to see Mo’nique in such a highly dramatic role because audiences know her mainly as a standup comic. It is highly probable that she will take home an Academy Award next March for her performance.

Sidibe with Paula Patton as Ms. Rain
Early in the story, Precious finds herself being interrogated by her school principal Mrs. Lichenstein (Nealla Gordon) about the circumstances surrounding her second pregnancy. This administrator has very little compassion for her and does nothing to discover how she became pregnant again, what her home life dictates upon her, or why she is still in middle school at the age of sixteen. This lousy excuse of an educator’s solution for Precious is to expel her and pass her onto someone else by referring her to an alternative school called Each One, Teach One where she can get her GED. It is here that Precious meets Ms. Blu Rain, played by Paula Patton, a former school teacher who believes that everyone has a future, no matter how dysfunctional their past may be. The character seems to be directly derived from Sapphire herself, who used to be a literacy teacher in Harlem and the Bronx. When Precious first begins classes there, she is almost completely illiterate and understands very little. But over time, Ms. Rain teaches her to read and write and Precious slowly develops both as a student and a person. Ms. Rain is the first person to ever take an active interest in Precious and push her in a positive direction. She instills a sense of self-belief in Precious that never existed on any level. This is a huge contrast to Mrs. Lichenstein and we witness how the influence of a teacher can indeed impact a child.

Sidibe with Mariah Carey as Ms. Weiss
At the 62nd Cannes Film Festival, the film received a fifteen-minute standing ovation from the audience after the film was screened. Daniels responded that he was “embarrassed” and weary of showing his film there because he did not want to “exploit black people”. This has been an underlying issue for the film since its release. Certain critics have reprimanded Daniels for “demeaning the idea of black American life” to the world. There is indeed a constant bombardment of social issues throughout the film: incest, rape, teen pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, illiteracy. Which almost makes the story seem unrealistic and borderline cliché. We begin to wonder if anything else could possibly happen to this poor unfortunate girl. Dana Stevens felt that the film drags the audience “through the lower depths of the human experience” and “leaves no space to be able to come to their own conclusions.” Although the predicaments Precious finds herself in are no doubt horrendous and shocking, the film presents a subject matter that is not well known to the general public. And such awareness cannot be shunned upon, regardless of how demoralizing the story may be.

Lee Daniels directs Sidibe and Xosha Roquemore
Daniels’ film exposes a world that most people never knew existed or if they did, they pretend it doesn’t. I always speak about how certain directors foster a strong concept of realism into their films, but Daniels takes that reproach to another level. This film addresses the hard issue up front without sugar coating anything. It forces us to accept the fact that we do not live in a perfect world, not by a long shot. No matter how bad you may think your own life is, it is seemingly guaranteed that someone else is worse off. But that is not the message behind this movie. Precious is about cherishing what you do have, no matter how miniscule or depreciated it may seem. And instills a belief that there is always hope no matter how bad things may get. “The longest journey begins with a single step.”

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Bottom Line: A heart-wrenching story about the hardships of an abused and seemingly hopeless teenager in Harlem. Masterful acting performances take this film to a whole other level.

Mary J. Blige: "Destiny"

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