Monday, November 23, 2009

Movie Review: Precious

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire *** ½
Directed By:
Lee Daniels.
Written By: Geoffrey Fletcher based on the novel by Sapphire.
Starring: Gabourey Sidibe (Precious), Mo'Nique (Mary), Paula Patton (Ms. Rain), Mariah Carey (Mrs. 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 (Tootsie), Nealla Gordon (Mrs. Lichtenstein).

Why are there so few realistic movies about African Americans made today? Why are the best African American directors – Carl Franklin, Boaz Yakin, John Singleton and even recently Spike Lee – stuck making genre films? Why are major African American stars – Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Halle Berry, Morgan Freeman – given so few chances to play real black people on screen? In recent years, the films of Tyler Perry have proven that there is an audience out there for films dealing with real problems facing the African American community, even if those films are just basically big screen sitcoms. American now has their first African American President, and yet it seems that Hollywood, which prides itself on being more progressive than the rest of America, doesn’t seem to want to make movies about real black people.

That alone makes Lee Daniel’s Precious somewhat of a rarity and a cause for celebration in this movie landscape. It is a powerful film, so much so that it attracted some big name support, in the form of Perry himself as well as Oprah, who added their names as executive producers after the films premiere at Sundance to ensure that the film, which director Lee Daniels thought would end up going straight to DVD, would be seen by as wide of an audience as possible. Given the numerous awards the film has already won, not to mention the awards it will win, and it’s strong box office in limited release, proves that yes, audiences do want to see movies like this.

The movie stars newcomer Gabourey Sidibe in a powerful performance as Clarice Precious Jones, an overweight 16 year old girl, still in Junior High, and pregnant with her second child, fathered by her own father, who has never been around much unless it was to rape Precious. Her mother Mary (Mo’Nique) knew what was going on, but let it happen. Not only that, she blames Precious for what happened. She is both verbally and physically abusive towards Precious. She never leaves their apartment, unless it’s to play her “numbers”, and treats Precious pretty much like her own personal slave. Precious goes to school, but doesn’t really participate or do anything. She can barely read or write, and early in the movie, the Principal Mrs. Lichtenstein, pretty much the only white person we see in the movie, informs her that this school isn’t doing her any good, and suggests an alternative school – Reach One, Teach One. Precious goes, and finds the school more to her like. Mary thinks it is all just a waste of time, and tells Precious to get down to the Welfare office to get some money. But Precious goes to the school anyway, and slowly, but surely, starts to come out of her shell.

One of the things I found refreshing about Precious was that white people play almost no role in Precious’ coming of age or dawning of enlightment. How many movies have we seen about a selfless, white teacher who goes to the inner city and inspires the poor black kids? Too many by my count. But in Precious, she meets one strong woman after another. The teacher, Mrs. Rain (Paula Patton), is not only a confident black woman, but also a lesbian, who reaches out and connects with her students, probably because she relates to them. The other girls in the class – mostly black, but some Hispanics as well – are also strong and confident, and are not letting their lot in life keep them down. Even Mariah Carey delivers a strong performance as a social worker. Normally Carey comes across as an extremely fake Barbie doll type, but here with a lack of makeup, she has a more world weary appearance. She’ll help Precious, but only if she helps herself first. Lenny Kravitz delivers a similarly strong performance as a Nurse at the hospital where Precious goes to give birth. Gone is the cocky swagger we normally associate with Kravitz, and in its place is a realistic portrayal of a man who simply wants to help.

But this is a double edged sword in its own way as well. As much as I appreciated these portrayals, it struck me as somewhat unrealistic. Everywhere Precious turns, she finds people willing to help, as if her only problem was being born into an abusive family. There seems to be no portrayal of a mindless, heartless bureaucracy that makes it harder for poor people of any color to get a leg up on life. And yet, the movie places the blame for Precious’ lot in life purely on that bureaucracy as Precious complains about the teachers who just let her sit there and not learn anything for all those years. Doesn’t Precious bare at least some of the responsibility? Shouldn’t she have done something all those years?

But these are minor flaws, in a movie that for the most part is powerful and emotional. Some will complain that director Lee Daniels goes overboard with the stylistic flourishes he peppers throughout the movies. The scenes in Precious and Mary’s apartment movie seems dirty and grimy – as if it were shot through a layer of filth. This is contrasted to the lighter tone of the classroom, and the almost clinical and sterile environments of the hospital and the social worker’s offices, which are drab and barren. But Daniels flourishes work in this movie, as if shot in a more straight forward style, Precious could have easily looked like a TV movie of the week – something we would see on the Lifetime or Women’s network. But Daniels movie doesn’t look like that at all. After his horrendous directorial debut, Shadowboxer, he seems to have learned how to make a movie, and he does a great job.

But the movie really is an actor’s showcase for Sidibe and Mo’Nique. Newcomer Sidibe is brilliant in her first major role, letting us slowly get a look inside of Precious. She is a beautiful girl, hiding underneath her overweight appearance. One of the most interesting things about the movie is how honest she is in her voiceover, depicting her years of abuse and suffering and yet how she also holds back. When she looks into the mirror, it is not her she sees in the reflection, but rather a skinny, pretty, blonde white girl. She never mentions this, but the implication is crystal clear – how much easier her life would be if she looked like that, rather than herself. Sidibe is quiet throughout much of the opening scenes of the movie, only come to life in her fantasy sequences, but as the movie progresses, she abandons those fantasies, for her own harsh reality. For the first time, she is taking responsibility for herself. It is a remarkable debut performance – and it should net her an Oscar nomination.

Mo’Nique already has the supporting actress sewn up for her performance her, and she deserves it. In her first scene, she lets off a series of profanity that would make a gangster in a Scorsese film blush. She is a force of nature here – an abusive, foul mouthed monster of a woman. In her final, tearful scene in the social workers office, she is more subdued, yet she does a remarkable thing. In that scene, she turns the monster from the rest of the movie into a real person. She lets her guard down, and for the first time is honest. We do not feel sympathy for her in this scene, but for the first time we understand her. It is a daring, brilliant performance from an actress that I never suspected had this sort of depth.
Precious is almost assured to be on the year’s big Oscar contenders. In a way, it is much like Slumdog Millionaire, yet I don’t think that Precious is anywhere near as much of a fairy tale than that movie is. The movie ends on an inspiring note, but not one that is really all that happy when you stop and think about it. Precious’ life has improved dramatically over the course of the movie, but that doesn’t mean things are going to get any easier for her.

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