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Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire

November 5, 2009  |  9:07pm
Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire

Release Date: Nov. 6
Director: Lee Daniels
Writer: Geoffrey Fletcher, (based on a novel by Sapphire)
Starring: Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Sherri Shepherd
Cinematographer: Andrew Dunn
Studio/Run Time: Lionsgate, 110 mins.

Precious offers a strong performance in a familiar tale

The star of the new film Precious is a young actor named Gabourey Sidibe. It’s her screen debut, and she plays the title character, a high-school girl who appears in nearly every scene. Her deep-set eyes seem to peek out through the cracks of a thick armor, and her soft voice narrates the story and, when coerced, answers questions in school.

Often those questions are about her personal life, posed by concerned administrators, because outside that armor is a world stacked against her. She lives with a monster of a mother, sees her baby only when its required as a prop for the social worker’s visit, and possesses not a scrap of self-esteem except when she retreats into a fantasy world of colored lights and throbbing music, a world that floods her vision at moments of high distress. And now she’s pregnant with her second child.

As a testament to the performance, the clearly drawn character is the film’s purest gem, and she remains unblemished to the end, even though she’s surrounded by what would seem on paper to be the worst kind of multi-faceted branding. The very title of the film pushes a novel and highlights the writer’s name, above it are seals-of-approval from Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, and above that are the names of the cast: Mo’Nique (the mother), Mariah Carey (a tough social worker who knows how to listen), and Lenny Kravitz (a fun hospital orderly).

That’s on paper. In practice, the film offers a visually textured view of a trite story that you’ve heard before. Precious meets an inspirational teacher who cracks through her shell, she eventually confronts her mother, and she takes control of her life. And the film leaves her there, headed for something better, presumably, but who knows what. Along the way, the film bounces between home and school, with challenges on both ends. The tenement is shot as slum art, where the walls are mottled with pools of sepia-toned light, the air is seasoned with the sounds of television and sizzling bacon, and the teenager’s room is decorated with magazine cut-outs that tell a story of latent desire. The school is fluorescent white. That is, until Ms. Inspiration comes along, and then things move to a new setting that’s warm and naturally lit, housing a small class of colorful misfits.

The supporting actors don’t play up their celebrity images. If you weren’t familiar with Mo’Nique or Carey, you’d never pick them out as fashion mavens from this film, although you might wonder why it spends so much time on them. But they don’t milk it. Carey is solid and credible, and only a well-timed tear seems to reach too far. (You can almost hear the talk show interview now: “That wasn’t scripted!”). Mo’Nique gives her character a smidgen of depth when she delivers a powerful monologue late in the film, although the movie feels vampirish for dwelling on the story’s most sordid details. (Beyond a certain point, those details are the plot’s only momentum.) And Kravitz is all but invisible in his scrubs.

The familiar story is as fantastical as the soulful musical numbers that Precious imagines when her sorrow is unbearable. The film’s dueling modes—emathy on one hand and calculated, slavering misery-tourism on the other—are as awkward as a monster calling her daughter a name that can only be ironic. But in the end is Sidibe, whose intimate voice-over, subtly expressive face, and heartrending condition have touched viewers at the Sundance and Toronto film festivals where the film walked away with the biggest audience awards available. People are moved. And I can see why. The story’s world is stacked against Precious, and the movie’s marketing engine is stacked against Sidibe, but in some ways those structures explain why we’re hearing about this young woman in the first place, and they both offer a reason to cheer when she overcomes the substantial obstacles.

Watch the Precious trailer:

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