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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Precious Thoughts

Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire

On Saturday, I sat in a packed theater to see the much-buzzed (Oscar frontrunner?) Precious, which most of you probably know is about a severely obese and abused young woman living in Harlem in the 1980s. It's won numerous audience awards at film festivals, and now it is here, and I predict it will be a film phenomenon. It has a sort of cross between arthouse/urban/tearjerker appeal that will serve it well.

But how was it? For the most part, I have to say it lived up to the hype. For me, the movie had a very personal connection. I spent 4 years as a GED/ABE teacher and a large chunk of the movie takes places in an ABE classroom. While inspiring teacher movies are begging to be cliched, this classroom rung true for me as a teacher. I definitely knew students like Precious, and others who had problems just as severe. I also knew students with similar personalities to every other student in the classroom. These classroom scenes are lively, inspiring, and give the viewer a break from the relentless intensity of the home scenes. Paula Patton does a really nice job as Blu Rain, the teacher of Precious who helps her seek her own liberation. I haven't even mentioned the deglammed Mariah Carey yet. She is quite good in a smallish role as Precious' social worker.

The powerful and disturbing home scenes are played between Precious (newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) and her mother Mary (Mo'nique). Mo'nique gives an absolutely terrifying performance as a mother who subjects her daughter to monstrous things. She's a true force of nature of screen, and you can't turn away from her performance. The brilliance of the performance is that, while we never truly sympathize with Mary, Mo'nique allows the character to be a person and not simply a figure of evil. The grandmother shuffling about in the background of a few scenes also makes you wonder what Mary lived through as well. What's inspiring about the movie (spoiler alert) is that Precious' triumph is that she is gaining the skills to break the cycles of abuse for her children. Her future may be bleak, but there is hope in her empowerment.

Precious is also, with a few minor exceptions, well-directed by Lee Daniels. I think he knows how to suggest much of the brutality without being overly graphic in its depiction. In one particular scene, the fade to black is probably actually more powerful than showing the viewer what is about to happen. I do question a couple of his judgments. The movie often shows Precious' fantasies at times when difficult things are happening, and these are mostly successful at showing us how she would choose to escape. The foreign movie scene, however, felt forced and not something that would necessarily be in Precious' experience. My other minor qualm is about the details of Precious' life. Do we really need a scene where Precious steals fried chicken, has grease all over her face, and then gets sick? It struck me as overkill in a movie that is telling a compelling story on its own.

There's been some backlash of the movie along the lines of wondering if the movie should have even been made and if it isn't just trading in negative stereotypes. While I do question a few choices made by the filmmakers, I have to disagree with this general line of argument. What I like most about Precious is that it shows us a character who many would otherwise turn from. As much as it saddens me, I also don't think this movie is unrealistic. Should we refrain from making and seeing movies about people who are not shown in their best light? This seems, to me, to be a severely limiting view of art. In the end, I think the character of Precious truly comes through as an individual and not as a stereotype. In the end I think Precious is that rare thing, a tearjerker and inspirational that earns every emotion it elicits.

Grade: A-

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