Tuesday, November 10, 2009


First thing's first. Not everyone is going to respond to this film, and those that do will respond differently. Some will hate it (as some already do) just as some people will love it. If you are a black person who believes that this film perpetuates racial stereotypes, you are more than entitled to that opinion, and I am certainly not going to be presumptuous enough to tell anyone how to feel about it. This film will hit a lot of people hard, in perhaps many different ways. In my opinion, that is one of the things that makes it art. And ultimately, I do believe that the majority of the people who see it - and it's going to be a widely seen movie, I firmly believe - will be moved by it, hurt by it, and want to wrap their arms around it in a great big bear hug.

Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire

You could say that the decks are stacked against Claireece Precious Jones, the eponymous protagonist of (and I'm only going to do this full title once) Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire. You could also spit in the direction of someone dying of thirst and not be that much more inadequate or insulting than using such a cliche about her situation. Precious lives a hell that not many people on earth will ever know, and her life is such a horror show that it simply defies overstatement. The author Sapphire based her novel Push on several girls she encountered while teaching, and I wish I could say it surprises me that any real person could possibly have such an atrocious lot in life. I know better than to be that naive.

Precious is sixteen years old. She lives with her mother Mary and, on the rare occasion he's there, Mary's boyfriend Carl, who is also Precious's father. She is a dark-skinned black girl, which even today, even among other black people, carries a stigma. She is obese, well over 300 pounds, and is frequently mocked and even attacked for it. Mary is an astonishingly cruel and abusive parent, something we learn when she very first appears on screen, but her cruelty and abuse are not even the worst of her crimes against her daughter. Because in addition to jaw-dropping extended verbal abuse and physical abuse, she has betrayed her only daughter by staying silent and failing to even try to protect her from her father's sexual abuse. At the film's climax, we learn the horrifying truth about how this began - and how long ago it began - but it's shocking enough to know early on that her father has raped her repeatedly and that she is now pregnant by him for the second time. She is still in junior high - not dumb (she's quite good at math), but she still cannot read or write - but she is kicked out because of her pregnancy. If all this seems like too much to bear, it is, and occasionally Precious has to take herself to a happier place - another reality where she is famous and beautiful and people love her. And yet, perhaps because any real dreams and hopes have been both literally and figuratively beaten out of her, these fantasies are somewhat empty.

Thankfully, we don't have to go far in the movie before the first faint light of hope comes knocking on Precious's door. Her guidance counselor at the junior high school has recommended her to a special alternative school. Mary hears of this and is ready to smash that hope out of her before it has time to take root. And she does, in possibly the most stunning display of verbal cruelty that I have ever witnessed (you've only seen dramatically edited portions of it in the trailers).

Mary is played by comedienne Mo'Nique, and I know what you're thinking, but my God you have no idea what this woman is capable of as an actor. I've heard people comparing this character to Hannibal Lecter, and while that kind of makes me giggle, there's some truth to that. You know how, in Silence of the Lambs, Clarice is walking down the corridor and all those inmates are leering and saying profanities to her, and she gets to Lecter's cell and he's all still and calm, and that stillness is scarier than all that other overt insanity? I thought of that in Mary's first scene. In the beginning, she's very still and quiet. In fact, you can barely decipher what she's saying to Precious. But you can feel the rage boiling. I swear, I've never seen anyone do something as small as smoke a cigarette and infuse it with so much hatred. But unlike Hannibal Lecter, who you're kind of waiting for and halfway rooting for to break free and go crazy, you're not quite prepared for what happens with Mary. Often, when a villain finally lets loose, it's kind of anti-climactic, because the threat of what they could do if set free is more frightening than actually seeing it. Not so with Mary. She quietly, but angrily, exhorts Precious to "get rid of that white bitch" at the door, and after the counselor leaves and Precious has a few moments to think maybe she's not worthless after all, Mary throws a frying pan at her head and knocks her unconscious. After which she splashes water in Precious's face so that she can be conscious while Mary unleashes an extended barrage of taunts and insults the likes of which you have never seen. It just goes on and on and on, and eventually Mary runs out of material and starts repeating stuff because she hasn't spent all her rage yet and needs to keep hurting Precious. And when Precious commits one small act of defiance, Mary runs up the stairs and off camera to do to her daughter even worse things that the movie, which has just put us through quite a bit already, finally can't bear to show us.

As bad as all this may seem, Precious at least knows that one person is on her side. When she goes to the alternative school, called Each One Teach One, she is intimidated by the long list of paperwork that the receptionist (played by Sherri Shepherd) tells her is required. But fortunately, the counselor who recommended her has already sent everything required from the school, so she can start right away. The first thing she has to do is take some tests, which she hates, because she thinks tests make people think she's "got no brain," but soon enough she's in her class with Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), and she's got one more person on her side. And she finds another ally in Ms. Weiss (de-glammed, and she's more than happy to tell everyone that, Mariah Carey), a social worker. Both these women clearly see a lot of troubled girls in their jobs, and it shows on their faces, but even they are stunned by Precious's straits.

Sapphire said no to a lot of people who wanted to make her book into a film, because she was afraid they would make a Stand and Deliver type film, where it minimized Precious's pain and instead focused on the teacher or social worker who helped her out of it. And it's very likely that in the hands of another filmmaker, that's what the movie would have been - teacher/social worker meets troubled kid, determines to pull her through and help her find a future. You'd have the obligatory visit-the-home scene, where the noble heroine confronts the abusive parent, but that would only be a brief and, I dare say, condescending, glimpse at the reality this child has to live in every moment of her life, not just when a filmmaker decides it's the prefect moment to wring some tears from the audience. This film instead is that child's journey, and we're with her at every moment.

Which brings me to Precious, and the remarkable first-time actress who plays her. Gabourey Sidibe (she goes by "Gabby," because people have such a hard time pronouncing her name) was not an actress (she had a background role in a play in college) and didn't want to be one. Her mother is a singer in the Times Sqaure subway station, and she makes pretty good money, but Gabby knew she wouldn't be able to do that forever, and she was afraid of getting into acting, wanting a more safe career with benefits and a 401k instead. A friend bugged her about going to the audition, and she went through a couple of days of auditions and call-backs before meeting with director Lee Daniels and officially being cast. Before you see this movie, I recommend going to YouTube and doing a search with her name and watching some of her interviews, because the contrast between the bubbly, outgoing, talkative, and utterly joyous Gabby and the closed, bitter, beaten down, defeated Precious could not be more dramatic. Could. Not. Everything from the way she carries herself to the way she talks bespeaks a transformation we've lost the ability to expect from most actresses with much, much longer acting pedigrees. I'm bracing myself for the inevitable jackasses who will make hay of her weight, as they did with Jennifer Hudson a few years ago, and I wouldn't dare argue with someone who might be genuinely concerned about her health, but it's beyond refreshing to see someone so diametrically opposed to the Hollywood physical ideal poised to become a movie star.

She's in some good company with this movie. Besides the astounding performance by Mo'Nique, Paula Patton turns in a pretty stellar performance too as Precious's teacher. She's sadly been overlooked in a lot of reviews, and while I understand focusing on Gabby and Mo'Nique, I think the love could be spread a bit. Lenny Kravitz has a nice small role as a nurse at the hospital where Precious has her baby, and I have a soft spot for Xosha Roquemore who plays Joanne ("fluorescent beige"). Mariah Carey, though admittedly unrecognizable, is okay, but not great.

I feel I should tell anyone reading this, spoilers be damned, that Precious does eventually get away from her monster of a mother. I'm afraid that if people don't know that going in they may give up on the movie before things start to turn around for Precious. Don't get me wrong, this doesn't mean a happy ending. There's still some trials for Precious, but the biggest of her problems is out of her life in the end.

Speaking of the end, and I won't get spoilery here, but this is where Mo'Nique makes it clear that if she is not in the Supporting Actress race, it will be the biggest snub in recent memory (as will a snub for Gabby, in my opinion). It's impressive enough up to this point that she plays such a convincing and terrifying monster. But in her final scene, she shines a light on this woman's demons (and probably only a part of them) that is absolutely devastating to watch. I suspect that, other than Mo'Nique's performance in this scene being by far the most compelling thing to put a camera on, Daniels couldn't shoot much of the other actors even if he wanted to because they were probably a big sobbing hot mess just like everyone watching this in the theater. It isn't just rage and jealousy that drives Mary; she's clearly a sick woman. And I don't mean that in a dismissive way - she's literally mentally ill. And as she breaks down in front of the social worker, you can't help feeling a kind of horrified sympathy for her, even as she reveals the depths of depravity in the sexual abuse that Precious suffered and is confronted with her own inaction.

As hard as all this is to watch, there are light moments. Precious manages to have a sense of humor, at least when things aren't quite so hellish for her. And some of Lee Daniels' stylistic touches have a dash of humor as well, such as a sequence where Precious and Mary see an Italian film while Mary flips the channels on television. And maybe not everyone reacted the way I did, but I couldn't help laughing when Precious has a daydream about her "light-skinned boyfriend" and we see his skin sparkle.

Finally - and I don't want this to sound like the film has any kind of political agenda at all, because I don't believe it does - I was struck by the important role that government programs played in pulling Precious out of the abyss she was born into. There are an awful lot of well-off people who think that everyone can have what they have if they only work hard enough. There's a Latin word for that, and I believe it's pronounced "bullshit." Precious never chose to be born into the life she had, nor do the real life people who have circumstances very like hers. I thank God that we live in a country that, for now, still believes it has a duty to help people like that. And I'm more than happy to give up some of my own hard-earned money so that our government can give these people the relief - not a free ride, relief - that they desperately require.

One more note - I've heard many people say they can't wait to see this movie, and I can only say that with an almost unheard of intake average of $100,000 per screen this past weekend, they are not going to wait long to unleash this on the rest of America. I don't know if it will move you the way it moved me, but I'd say it's definitely worth seeing for yourself.