Sunday, September 5, 2010

"Precious" (2009)

Starring Gabourey Sidibe, Mo'Nique and Paula Patton
Written by Geoffrey Fletcher
Directed by Lee Daniels

I keep hearing this movie referred to as "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire".  Frankly,  as good a film as it is, I cannot in good conscience refer to it as such.  I'm sorry that there was a superhero movie called "Push" that came out earlier the same year, but man, pretentious much?  Shit.

Ok, that's probably pretty douchey.  But whatever.  I don't recall the zillions of other movies based on novels that are so insistent on shoving ungainly titles all over the place.  "Jurassic Park: Based on the Novel 'Jurassic Park' by the Late Michael Crichton.

Now that I got that bit of ridiculousness out of my system, "Precious" is still a great movie.  But maybe instead of "Precious" (or "Push,") they could've called it "Vicious."

Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) is an overweight, lower-class teenager in Harlem, pregnant for the second time by her sexually abusive father.  Her mother, Mary (Mo'Nique) is also viciously abusive, blaming Precious for the failure of her relationship.  Mary constantly berates Precious, calling her stupid, calling her fat and pretty much anything else you can imagine.  She stages a happy home for social workers that occasionally come to inspect their apartment, but just does the bare minimum in order to continue getting her welfare checks.

Precious, on the other hand, wishes for a better life for herself and her children.  At the insistence of her school guidance counselor, she enrolls in a local alternative school led by the kindly Ms. Rain (Paula Patton).  Rain helps Precious improve her reading and writing skills, encouraging her to write about her life and express herself.  Meanwhile, Precious also meets periodically with a social worker, Mrs. Weiss (Mariah Carey) who tracks her progress.

Eventually, Precious' second child is born.  She spends time in the hospital, befriending a nurse named John (Lenny Kravitz) and visited by her friends from school.  Over time, the school becomes a surrogate family for Precious, especially Ms. Rain.  After Mary assaults Precious and her baby, Rain takes Precious in for a short time, and Precious discovers what it's like to live in a loving home during Christmas.  Eventually, Mary contacts Mrs. Weiss, asking to be reunited with Precious.  This leads to an emotional confrontation where Mary and Precious will lay out the nature of their hatred for each other, and a decision will be made on how Precious will spend the rest of her life.

"Precious" as I said is a particularly vicious film.  I've seen few movies that are so intent on mistreating its protagonist.  Precious is dealt blow after blow after blow that could, or should, break a person.  Since she doesn't, I suppose we are meant to find some inspiration in how she continues on through all the abuse, but the film doesn't lead you to this conclusion with sappy music or any of the other tropes and mechanics that movies would generally use.  But the tone of the film is dark, and it piles on the abuse and the pain on both Precious and the audience.

Instead of sappy music and all that jazz, "Precious" does have one interesting filmic device that it uses: whenever Precious is abused or faced with violence or even harsh emotional situations, she will disappear into a fantasy world where she's famous, or beautiful, or rich, or loved.  These segments are loud and bombastic, displaying more color and energy than anything else in the rest of the film.  It's used sparingly, thankfully, rather than becoming some kind of absurd, Austin Powers routine.  Similarly, an intriguing moment uses news and historical footage projected on ehte walls and windows of the classroom to symbolize Precious' learning.

Sidibe, in her acting debut, is quite good as Precious.  She's got a weariness about her, but also a quiet desperation.  She really wants a fine life for her children, and she doesn't want to give them up, either.  Mo'Nique is also a force in the film, throwing out a frightening performance as Mary.  She shouts abuse like no one I've ever heard, often going on tirades that made me cringe listening to them.  Paula Patton brings strength and warmth to Ms. Rain, and shows an easy chemistry with her students.  Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz disappear into their roles, which is a relief.  They could easily have fallen into that pit of Hollywood stunt casting that can ruin these sorts of things.  But they don't.

"Precious" is not a film that follows the usual movements and tropes of the "inspirational drama" category.  It's filmed in a very dry, simple manner, employing internal narration at times, along with Precious' writing to fill us in on her thoughts and feelings.  The photography is dark, grainy and less than colorful.  Her times in class are lit warmly, while Mary's apartment is a dreary, disgusting looking place and Weiss' office is full of blown-out whites and sterile atmosphere.

In the end, "Precious" is a worthwhile drama.  The performances are excellent, worth the price of admission alone, but it is by no means an easy film to watch.