Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire
2009, R, 109 min. Directed by Lee Daniels. Starring Gabourey Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Sherri Shepherd, Lenny Kravitz.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 20, 2009
Much like its title protagonist Precious – a sexually, emotionally, and physically abused 16-year-old African-American girl who is functionally illiterate, morbidly obese, and pregnant with her second child fathered by her own father who has continually raped her ever since she was a toddler – Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire is a rough-hewn entity with unlikely odds for success. Yet both the character and the movie overcome their handicaps to become the kind of success stories that the American mythmaking machinery loves to love. Claireece Precious Jones (Sidibe) is known by her middle name, a name that sadly affords her the only self-worth she knows. At home she thanklessly waits hand and foot on her mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), herself a disturbed and disturbing figure, both victim and violator, another link in this gruesome cycle of degradation. They are women in the shadows (in Mary’s case almost literally, as she hardly ever leaves their apartment and measures the passage of time by the flickering light of the ever-present TV); they are the women we rarely notice, products of the pain and abuse in their past and the bleak prospects held for their future. Instead of looking the other way, however, this movie and the popular book on which it is based place them front and center. We are not allowed the comfort of averting our eyes. Precious’ hulking frame and puffy face seem impervious to the ridicule and scorn which greet them at every turn, even too toughened to be penetrated by the kind attentions of a couple of teachers and a social worker. Then newcomer Sidibe’s face will suddenly unclench and reveal something of the starving soul within, and you realize that this first-time actress is a real find and not just a looming presence and narrative device. So, too, with most of the performances here. There is something so raw and natural in almost all of them that the only one that has a whiff of the fictional about it is the role of the so-good, so-loving teacher Blu Rain, played by Patton, the only full-time dramatic actor in the group. Daniels has done a marvelous job of casting famous friends of his, none of them known for dramatic chops, in key roles and getting heart-stirring, stripped-down performances from them all. In particular, comedian Mo’Nique, as the monstrous mother Mary, delivers a bone-chilling performance that makes the woman’s actions understandable, if not almost sympathetic. And Carey’s turn as the plain-Jane social worker is so unaffected and frank that you’ll think twice about ever again labeling her a diva. Despite achieving such a remarkably raw and naturalistic tone, Daniels ups the ante with extreme melodramatic touches that drive home the emotions and leave viewers wracked. Precious experiences fantasy sequences in which she imagines herself astride a red carpet, decked out in fabulous costumes and the envy of all. They are shabby and grainy-looking but get their point across and are almost poetic in contrast to Precious’ flashbacks of being raped by her father, into which images of a heavy frying pan and a sizzling egg are intercut. Other times, Daniels’ camerawork and editing are narratively inscrutable in terms of where the focus is put and why. It’s likely the viewer may feel bludgeoned by a story that really has no need to go outside itself to marshal public opinion, though this hasn’t curtailed the mad passion for the film. Precious was the recipient of the Audience Awards at both the Sundance and Toronto film festivals this year. It is certainly the best button-pushing movie of the year.