Thursday, December 3, 2009

Precious: Flawless gem

Precious (2009) • View trailer for Precious
Five stars (out of five). Rating: R, for rape, child abuse, drug use, dramatic intensity and relentless profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.3.09
Buy DVD: Precious • Buy Blu-Ray: Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire [Blu-ray]

Some dramas are so persuasively powerful that they become more "real" than documentaries.

Director Lee Daniels' mesmerizing handling of Precious is just such a film.

I was so caught up in the story  so thoroughly immersed in Gabourey Sidibe's powerful lead performance  that at one point, late in the film, as Claireece "Precious" Jones gets out of a car in the midst of a brutal Harlem snowfall, I was immediately concerned that she'd better get inside quickly, lest she get cold.
Claireece "Precious" Jones (Gabourey Sidibe, left) sees her mother, Mary
(Mo'Nique), smile only when a social worker visits; the facade crumbles the
moment the interloper leaves the slum apartment, at which point Mary reverts
to her usual level of toxicity. Mo'Nique's performance is a horror story of
poisonous motherhood: a benchmark that stands alongside other memorable
monster parents such as Shelley Winters ("A Patch of Blue") and Angela
Lansbury ("The Manchurian Candidate").

The notion that this was a film  fiction  was long gone. I may as well have been watching this narrative through a window; it was genuinely happening, at that moment.

Although tremendously difficult to watch -— the story is unapologetically frank, and frequently brutal  Precious is a work of art in the truest sense: a film put together with unerring care, blending superlative performances with a storytelling style that both suits its environment, and respects its characters (those who deserve respect, I hasten to add).

Geoffrey Fletcher's gripping script is based on the book Push, a Novel by Sapphire, and it's as harrowing a slice of inner-city despair as ever has been conveyed on film. And yet, despite its bleak environment and frequently disturbing content, it emerges as a most unlikely empowerment saga: proof that the human spirit, no matter how beaten down and degraded, can flicker into unlikely glory if granted encouragement.

And love. Most importantly, love.

After experiencing a story such as this, one is inclined to believe that love is more crucial to human survival than breathing.

Sidibe's presence dominates this film  she's in nearly every scene -— and not simply because of her breathtaking size. She's a huge young woman of 16: tragically overweight thanks to a foul diet and a tendency to overeat as compensation for her miserable life. (You'll not regard fried chicken and McDonald's fast food quite the same way, after this film.)

We're riveted to her misery: an eternal expression of vacant despair that flows from her eyes  which miss nothing  and the grim set of her mouth. I'm grateful to the recent talk-show appearances that have revealed Sidibe to be a vivacious young woman with a ready smile; it's both nice to see her capable of such gaiety, and to be reminded that her work in this film is "only" acting.

But what acting. "Heartache" isn't a strong enough word to describe our reaction to Precious.

Home life is unrelenting hell, waiting hand and foot on her mother, Mary (Mo'Nique), a poisonous woman who abuses her daughter emotionally and physically. Mary is a nightmare: the worst sort of ugly, indolent sloth, who stirs her corpulent frame from the TV set just long enough, every few weeks, to politely lie when social caseworkers drop by, in order to present a charade that will keep the welfare checks flowing.

The steps Mary will take, during these sham interviews, are breathtaking in their duplicity.

Then, with the door quietly closed behind another interview, Mary reverts to form, belching profanity-strewn tirades that still sting, despite the years that have hardened Precious' huge frame. No matter how warped they become, nightmare mothers always retain the ability to genuinely wound their children; few recipients have the strength to truly ignore such abuse.

At the worst moments, Precious retreats into mental fantasies involving lovely clothes, attentive young men and public adulation; we experience these waking dreams as she does, seeing Precious' imagined "better self" the way she hopes she could be. Sometimes, while dressing for school, the reflection in her mirror is of an attractive young white girl.

Other times, the carefully preserved photographs in an album  clearly the only personal item that Precious truly cherishes  come to life and talk to her, reflecting the might-have-been world in her mind.

But it's important to understand that Precious has no trouble separating such fantasies from reality; she's not in danger of losing the distinction between the two. Although she lacks the ability to articulate what she does, she's actually gotten quite good at coping.

School remains an avenue of escape  several hours free of her mother's nasty presence  but scarcely one of joy; Precious is too large a target for the reflexive taunts of fellow students. And because this is 1987, prior to the enlightenment that has (thankfully) become more common today, Precious is unceremoniously kicked out of school when it's discovered that she's pregnant.

The second time, actually. By her father.

Ironically, this cruel institutional rejection  Sidibe breaking our heart, as she tries to understand if this is her fault  proves to be the best thing that has happened to Precious. She accepts the option of a transfer to an alternative school  Each One/Teach One -— and comes to the attention of the firm but patient Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), who runs a literacy workshop for half a dozen young women in various troubles of their own creation.

Ms. Rain discovers the secret that Precious somehow concealed in conventional school: her utter inability to read or write. (This film's title credits are presented in a childish, barely literate scrawl that gets "translated" into words we understand: an immediate entry into the chasm that separates Precious' desire and ability to communicate.)

Ms. Rain senses something in her newest charge: willingness. Precious doesn't cut up like the other girls  a delightful group of young actresses: some wincingly earthy, others obviously destined to fail  but clearly pays attention and tries. She's that one girl an impassioned teacher spends her entire life waiting to encounter: the one who could be changed.

Elsewhere, driven to apply for her own welfare checks  Mary contemptuously seeing no earthly use in schooling  Precious comes to the attention of Ms. Weiss (an utterly unrecognized Mariah Carey), a social worker with a disarming manner that encourages actual candor from the miserable young woman who sits opposite her.

The moment of revelation is impressively delicate; Carey's expression barely flickers, as Ms. Weiss struggles to quell the horror that we know has just flooded her mind. She's good at her job: She understands the need not to react.

And this exchange, as well, will have long-reaching implications on Precious' eventual fate.

All the performances here are excellent, even brief appearances by (for example) the little girl who lives in Precious' building, and seems well on her way to the same sort of dead-end life. Daniels cast his film provocatively, starting with Mo'Nique  best known as a stand-up comic  and including Carey and rock musician Lenny Kravitz, who turns up as a compassionate nurse at the hospital where Precious eventually delivers her second child.

These seem like examples of "stunt casting," but they're not; Daniels gets ferociously authentic performances from everybody. When blended with the period music and Andrew Dunn's grainy, color-bleached cinematography, the result is full immersion: We're thoroughly a part of Precious' life.

We come to dread each appearance by Mo'Nique, fearing the snaps of temper that literally know no bounds. Alternatively, we come to cherish Patton's teaching moments  would that we could have such a mentor!  as she patiently guides Precious from one tiny victory to the next.

It seems unlikely that a film suffused with such grinding despair could be considered uplifting, and yet that's certainly the case here. Precious is an amazing little movie: one certain to resonate and perhaps change lives.

Art could not ask for more.

No comments:

Post a Comment