Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire Movie Review

R, 110 min, 2009

Gabourey Sidibe (Precious), Mo’Nique (Mary), Paula Patton (Ms. Rain), Mariah Carey (Ms. Weiss), Sherri Shepherd (Cornrows), Lenny Kravitz (Nurse John), Stephanie Andujar (Rita), Chyna Layne (Rhonda), Amina Robinson (Jermaine), Xosha Roquemore (Joann), Angelic Zambrana (Consuelo), Aunt Dot (Toosie), Nealla Gordon (Mrs. Lichtenstein), Grace Hightower (Socialworker), Barret Helms (Tom Cruise (as Barret Isaiah Mindell)). Directed by Lee Daniels and produced by Daniels, Gary Magness, Sarah Siegel-Magness. Screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher, based on the novel Push by Sapphire

Lee Daniels’ Precious is an overwhelming experience, impossible to fully describe. Cut from the cloth of difficult, indeed, occasionally overwrought material, this film will wring you out. What I do know is that this is a powerfully-directed film, centered on two strong performances by a newcomer and a comedian, featuring fantastic support by an eclectic yet talented cast. Is it melodramatic? Maybe. A bit heavy-handed at times? Perhaps. However, ungainly title aside, this film gets under your skin – and stays there.

The film features an astonishing debut performance by Gabourey Sidibe in the title role, a newcomer who goes out on a limb here and strikes gold, bearing her heart and soul. Clarice “Precious” Jones (Sidibe) is a 17-year-old high school student, morbidly obese, pregnant with her second child. Her first, who she refers to simply as “Mongol” (short for “Mongoloid”), is a little girl with Down’s Syndrome, the product of a rape at the hands of Precious’ biological father (the second child, still in Precious’ womb, is also his their offspring). Precious goes to school, excels at math (though she never speaks), is introspective, daydreams of seemingly endless scenarios in which she escapes the everyday, including running away with her handsome white teacher Mr. Wicher (Bill Sage). To call the reality of her home life a toxic nightmare would be putting it mildly.

It is 1987 in Harlem and Precious “lives” (if you could call it that) at home with her Welfare-utilizing mother Mary (Mo’Nique). She is a chain-smoking, vile, demonically vicious and hateful woman. She treats Precious like a slave, demanding her daughter cook pound upon pound of fat and grease-soaked fried food (pig’s feet and colored greens seem to be popular), she calls her fat, stupid and useless, she throws things at her, pushes her down, hits her, and (it’s implied), also molests her on occasion (there is an elliptical “explanation” pointing toward this during the film’s climactic scene; more on this in a bit). If your home life is Hell, what hope is there?

As if this wasn’t enough, before long Precious is kicked out of public high school for being pregnant. A potential future lies on the horizon, however, in the form of an alternative school where she finds people whose lives have been cake-walks by comparison. The all-girls class seems to be a colorful array of goof-offs, attention-hogs and, by and large, those struggling to better themselves. Here, Precious finds a scintilla of love and devotion in the teachings of the beautiful, kind and unusually named Ms. Blue Rain (Paula Patton), an encouraging force in the quest to teach these woe-begotten and misdirected youths how to read and write. There is also some semblance of a desire to be sympathetic and understanding from the social worker Mrs. Weiss (Mariah Carey).

So, can these women help this poor, defenseless girl with her troubles? Is Precious, in fact, poor and defenseless? The problem is that Precious has been bottling up all these horrors for so long that they have to come to light somehow. Presumably, she was threatened to keep quiet about the molestation at the hands of her father, and it has become a vicious cycle with her resentful, spiteful and violent mother taking over for him in his absence (the reason for which is also alluded to toward the end). Can talking to the right person about your troubles really solve anything?

The filmmakers seem to believe that, on some level, the answer to these kinds of problems lies in writing about it and talking about it, in opening yourself up and letting others in. It helps, of course, if you have a loving, caring and devoted teacher like Ms. Rain or a sincerely concerned social worker like Mrs. Weiss to guide you (most, it seems, aren’t this lucky).

The film’s horrors are deeply disturbing, enough to leave you emotionally eviscerated. The audience I saw this with gasped at a few crucial moments in the middle during the most violently vicious tirade that Precious’ mother has. It is truly painful to watch. Your heart races, you want to stay glued to your seat yet turn away and cry at the same time.

The performances are deathly convincing. Mo’Nique is revolting as the evil mother, who parades herself around as the all-but-perfect mother in front of social workers just to keep her checks coming, blowing the money on playing the lottery. But is Mary evil? She would have her accusers and, by extension, the audience believe that she was made this way by her upbringing (her own mother makes occasional appearances and seems vaguely appalled at and yet afraid of what her own daughter has become) and by the difficulties that have befallen her in her own life (“losing” her man, “helping” to raise two grandchildren as well as Precious, etc.). Maybe, on some level, that’s fair. What she has done to Precious and to her own grandchildren, however, is not. The things she inflicts on these children have no excuse whatsoever, try as she might to explain herself in the end.

As with Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, the scenes of abuse are stark, realistic and terrifying. As such, I feel the need to “warn” any potential audience for this film. From swinging a frying pan at ones head to actually throwing an infant to the ground, Mary is not to be messed with. One area the film seems to all-but-totally skip over, however, is the implication of Mary molesting Precious. Early in the film, we see Mary seemingly masturbating while Precious looks for food before going to school. She calls out to her mother and asks for money. Her mother calls Precious upstairs and says something to the effect, “Take care of Momma, Precious.” Fade out. The implication is pretty vague yet clear: Mary, as she explains toward the end (some of Precious’ voice-over hints at this as well), in order to fill her life with some semblance of sexuality again and because she “lost her man to Precious” years earlier, lets her daughter “pleasure” her. To what end? Is another form of psychological and physical abuse at play here? Is this another form of domineering over her daughter and making her feeling worthless?

On the other side of the spectrum of character is the loving, dutiful guidance of teacher Ms. Rain and social worker Mrs. Weiss. They seem to see something in everyone, regardless of their attitude, their behavior or their potential to disappoint. Ms. Rain in particular seems to regard Precious with a sweet, quiet comprehension. She never spells it out, but she’s been around the block many times, and has seen young girls suffering through similar but different situations, is patient and compassionate, wants to help. It seems to me the film sees women like Ms. Rain and Mrs. Weiss as what maternal influences in a young person’s life are supposed to be like. Lenny Kravitz, completely unrecognizable (at least to me), appears here as well in the role of Nurse John, who takes care of Precious when she goes into labor.

If Mo’Nique’s villainous portrait of a deeply scarred and seriously wounded woman lies at one side of the film’s spiritual spectrum, with the angelic teachers at the other, then perhaps the title performance by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe lies at the film’s center. What is astonishing is that, from what I’ve heard, she is little – if at all – like her character; this is a true performance, and an amazing one. Precious is the heart and soul of this film. All-but-mute, frustrated and suffering, she is trapped in a seemingly hopeless prison. If such a prison may not be of her own devising, then certainly the way out is entirely in her control. It is the place of women like Ms. Rain and Mrs. Weiss to give her the tools to her own salvation.

The film is the sophomore directorial effort from Lee Daniels following the ill-received Shadowboxer (2005), which featured the improbable pairing of Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Helen Mirren (yes – Helen Mirren!) as a pair of hitmen, stepson and stepmother, who were also lovers. Okay, so perhaps Daniels goes in for stunt casting. Or is he simply fascinated by improbable connections? One of his films as an acclaimed producer was Marc Forster’s Monster’s Ball (2001), which featured an unlikely sexual relationship (also interracial) between Halle Berry’s widowed waitress and Billy Bob Thornton’s prison guard raised in a racist household.

In this film, which couldn’t really be more different if it tried, he goes for a strong mixture of style and substance. The scenes of home life, which are inevitably gritty and powerfully, disturbingly realistic, shot in shadows with gold-ish, brown hues by cinematographer Andrew Dunn (Gosford Park), reminded me a bit of Requiem for a Dream (2000). A sharp contrast from Precious’ fantasy scenes, which are vibrant and colorful – sometimes oddly funny, often bittersweet, frequently aided and abetted by voice-over, they are a window into Precious’ mind and soul.

If the film has something of a weakness, it is perhaps in the borderline caricatures of the classmates in the alternative school scenes. From the obnoxious, big-spectacled Jo Ann (Xosha Roquemore) to the flirtatious Latina Consuelo (Angelic Zambrana) to the (seemingly) recently immigrated Jamaican Rhonda (Chyna Layne), this starts to feel, at times, like a virtual minority Breakfast Club.

However a precarious balance between the sincere and the almost stereotypical the film may flirt with at times, it does ring finally ring true in the end. The key to the film’s success is in the powerful performances by Mo’Nique, Patton and Carey. And don’t forget Gabourey Sidibe. Remember the name. This is one of the year’s best films.

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire Movie Poster

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