Thursday, November 19, 2009

The bold, powerful push of 'Precious'

Gabourey Sidibe on the streets of Harlem as Precious.

The people who've been promoting Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire acknowledge that they've made a disturbing movie, but insist that it's also uplifting. I certainly agree with the first part of their statement: Precious is extremely disturbing, a movie that sounds even grimmer than it plays when reduced to the kind of one-paragraph description that must be included in any review.

Precious tells the story of Claireece "Precious" Jones, a 300-pound black teenager who has given birth to a baby with Down Syndrome and is pregnant for the second time. Both kids were the consequence of rape, and to make matters worse, Precious' father did the raping.

Don't look to Mom for relief. Precious' abusive mother can't seem to pass five minutes without undermining her daughter's sense of self-worth. It's no surprise, then, that Precious barely can read or that she fantasizes that her white math teacher plans to whisk her off to the suburbs for a shot at happily-ever-after.

Director Lee Daniels, who directed Shadowboxer and who produced Monster's Ball (about interracial sex and love) and The Woodsman (about a pedophile) fills the screen with inescapably vivid close-ups. Precious is drama in all caps, and it can leave you feeling battered.

Still, the movie isn't without genuine power, much of it stemming from its performances. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe bravely portrays Precious. With her hair pulled back in ways that emphasize the thickness of her face, Sidibe's Precious seems immobile. She's 16, and her life already has plummeted into a downward spiral. Precious' weight and her demeanor are like fortresses. And believe me, Precious needs emotional protection. She escapes into fantasy when she's being raped or during other times of stress or humiliation.

Two additionally fine performances come from equally surprising sources. The comedian Mo'Nique portrays Mary, Precious' mom. Mary is the mother of all abusive mothers. Violent and vituperative, she has learned to turn her demeanor on a dime, pulling on a wig and trying to act properly when the Welfare people arrive and reverting to the role of monster as soon as they leave. Mary smokes, watches TV and treats Precious like a slave.

Toward the end of the picture, Mo'Nique has a soul-shattering monologue in which Mary's desperation is laid bare. It's one of the most effective bits of acting I've seen in some time, and also one of the most difficult to watch.

The movie's other notable performance comes from Mariah Carey, who plays a no-nonsense social worker. It wasn't until the film had concluded that I remembered the severely deglamorized Carey was in it. I talked to a former social worker after the movie. Her mini-reivew: Carey nailed it.

Despite its unusual title character, the plot of Precious is more conventional than it might initially seem. Asked to leave school, the pregnant Precious is guided toward a program that will help her learn to read. Each One Teach One is presided over by a caring teacher, played by Paula Patton, an actress whose exquisite good looks may be a bit much for a movie this gritty.

Patton's Ms. Rain is gay. She and her lover (Kimberly Russell) eventually reach out to Precious. Rain's determination helps turn Precoious' life around. Granted, it's not a big turn, but considering where Precious begins, any improvement becomes significant.

Precious also develops bonds with the other students at Each One Teach One, which is located in Harlem's Hotel Theresa, famed for having hosted a variety of black celebrities, as well as Fidel Castro on a New York visit made by the recently victorious Cuban in 1960. The interaction among these young women feels as authentic as anything in the movie, loose and full of street-wise posturing.

Set in 1987, the "uplift" of Precious diminishes if you allow the movie's ending to sink in. It's impossible to go further without introducing spoilers, so I'll just say that the movie is a picture of a life that the filmmakers must believe is being lived again and again by young women who are invisible to the larger society and scorned by those who do take the time to look.

Now what about the film as film? Powerful without being great, Precious is no kitchen-sink masterpiece. Daniels' may have wanted us to feel trapped inside Precious' world, but at times it feels as if he's wagging a finger at us. And with the exception of a nurse played by Lenny Kravitz, the movie doesn't do much for the already battered image of black men.

So I guess I haven't totally settled my own conflicts about Precious. Part of me says, "Too much." And another part of me says that if Precious seems to be speaking louder and more melodramatically than necessary maybe it's because Daniels feels nobody would otherwise listen.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mr. Denerstein. We left the Denver area 15 years ago yesterday, and enjoyed your column while we were there.

I just watched this movie last night and I too feel battered. But at a time when there is so much bad news we have become desensitized and this might be just what it takes to open our eyes.

I am part of an organization that helps fund education expenses for girls in Ethiopia. REAL Africa. Research shows that if girls are educated they want education for their children, both boys and girls.

In the end, Precious knows that education is her salvation. That and social capital: relationships to help her navigate our world.

Pam in MN