Friday, August 05, 2011

Precious (2009)

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, USA, 109 minutes
Director: Lee Daniels
Writers: Geoffrey Fletcher, Sapphire
Photography: Andrew Dunn
Music: Mario Grigorov
Editor: Joe Klotz
Cast: Gabourey Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Sherri Shepherd, Lenny Kravitz, Stephanie Andujar, Chyna Layne, Amina Robinson, Xosha Roquemore, Angelic Zambrana, Bill Sage, Sapphire

For all the abuse that it may deserve for the obnoxious official release title—which, on balance, may or may not have done the African-American novelist and poet Sapphire very much good—and for the abuse that it doesn't deserve because of its association with Oprah Winfrey (and, OK, Tyler Perry too), who has been known to get a few things right, I think in the end that Precious has to be counted as a good one. It draws its contrasts starkly, and many of its horrors seem calculated to shock—the obesity, the abuse, the family and other circumstances. But they never feel made up or particularly gratuitous, and in the end it comes across to me as a refreshing and interesting parable of "the system" actually working. I'm not sure there's that much wrong with wanting to stand and cheer for someone who can face down and survive the kinds of things that are going on here and, oh yeah, out there too.

Much has rightly been made of Gabourey Sidibe's brave performance. She owns this top to bottom. It's not just her physical presence, though certainly that's the first thing you notice—implacable, stolid, enduring as the earth itself even as she lumbers across it. But she's also nearly pitch-perfect emotionally, in the way she starts as so fully collapsed within herself, surviving at the most fundamental levels, and gradually begins to crawl out of all that, almost like a slow-motion second birth. Late in the movie, as she tentatively engages with the world, it becomes obvious how smart she is and also devastatingly funny. The transformation is really done well, in the screenplay and direction as well as in Sidibe's performance. But it's ultimately her performance that puts it over most effectively and makes Precious such a pleasure to watch in spite of everything.

Sidibe is well supported by the other performances here too, large and small. Most notable, of course, are entertainers Mo'Nique and Mariah Carey (the latter nearly unrecognizable without makeup), who memorably clash in an amazing confrontation toward the end. They both give quiet, studied, bravura performances not soon forgotten. Mo'Nique, as Precious's mother, is very nearly an unrelenting monster, but there's just enough self-awareness in it to make her grotesque eruption of self-pity at the end sympathetic even as she gets her richly deserved come-uppance. Carey as a social worker in charge of Precious's case is tough and flinty but never without compassion. I know her as an entertainer better than I do Mo'Nique, which may be why I find Carey's turn here the more impressive.

Paula Patton as Ms. Rain, Precious's teacher in the alternative school where Precious lands when she turns up pregnant with her second baby by her father, is another example of the optimistic note this film has set itself to take, determinedly showing that social safety net systems work even when they shouldn't, even when they are overwhelmed by circumstances of despair, because of the people who sacrifice their lives to seeing that they work. Ms. Rain is both pushy and patient with her students, doing everything necessary, up to and including taking in a suddenly homeless Precious at one point, to get them to engage with learning and with hope and optimism. She is a real inspiration and I can't be bothered if that sounds corny.

Much of this works, I'm pretty sure, exactly because of the qualities that the people who complain about it point to: it is intensely bleak when it turns its gaze to the toxic hatreds so single-mindedly destroying lives. "Love beat me, raped me, called me an animal, made me feel worthless," Precious cries out at one point. And it's not hyperbole inside of this movie. It's simply the truth.

Thus it's very hard to look at in places, most of them involving Mo'Nique, and it is sharply bracing in the casual way that it rolls out the despair, in the ways that people behave, using and abusing one another simply to fill up psychic empty places, and in the grinding palpable impoverishment and need, the casual cruelties, the neglect, the turn to food for comfort. All of that is stuffed into this, and if it's very convincing it's often very close as well to just plain too much.

At the same time director Lee Daniels finds ways to deflate the tensions by frequently entering into the fantasies playing out inside of Precious. These fantasies are often a glittering relief from the external events and often very clever and witty, as in one sequence in which Precious's mother is watching a neorealist Italian movie as she is punishing Precious by forcing her to eat. The punishment is disturbing, but enters a strange and even funny realm and anyway offers a break by way of the overlay that Precious projects onto the movie even as she sits there and miserably chews and swallows.

In the end I think you have to call Precious an optimistic picture. I don't think there's any denying it. For all the meanness of the circumstances of Precious's life and the precious few reasons for cheer that remain to her even in the end—she is suffering under an ever-worsening death sentence here that she is never going to escape—she finds a way to transcend all of the circumstances of her life, not by way of the fantasies that she uses in the first half, but rather by growing and accepting herself and her responsibilities and her lot in ways that feel realistic and reasonable. She finds a way to transcend and, even, to triumph.

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