Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Precious (***)

Directed by Lee Daniels


There are some films that are so bleak that they'll make your head spin. They pile on the most harrowing aspects of life, and create a world so horrible that it barely seems like reality. Is Precious one of those films? Almost. But more times than not, it is able to keep its head above water and let in moments of sunshine. Precious has a heavy load of hype atop of it, which makes it hard to watch objectively, but it is certainly one of the most powerful films of 2009--even if I'm not sure if it's one of the best.

Clarice 'Precious' Jones (newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) is morbidly obese, illiterate, and pregnant with her second child--both given to her by her faceless, incestuous father. She lives with her mother Mary (Mo'Nique), who is sad sack of bitterness and violence. Mary beats her, makes her cook all the food, and advises her to quit school so she can pick up some more welfare money. Few movie characters are more emotionally and physically abusive than Mary, and she has numbed Precious to the point that violence has becomes passe.

When her school learns of her new pregnancy, they kick her out and tell her to attend the alternative school "Each One, Teach One". There, she meets her new teacher Ms. Blue Rain (Paula Patton) and an assortment of degenerate young women hoping to get their GED. They learn to read, they learn to be civil, but probably most important, they develop friendships. In addition to her new classes, she is forced to meet with a social worker Ms. Weiss (Mariah Carey--yeah, that Mariah Carey), and explain what has happened in her life and how it has effected her poor student work.

When Mary learns of Precious' new school and newfound ambition, she is instantly antagonistic towards it, explaining that Precious is too dumb to expect anything from herself. She should just go on Welfare, Mary says. After the birth of her second child, Precious begins to see the brighter aspects of life after befriending her classmates and a friendly nurse named John (Lenny Kravitz--yeah, that Lenny Kravitz). Precious realizes that she must try her hardest to rid herself of her painful past and try to start anew. To do this, she has to do her best to separate herself from the monstrous Mary. This is something that is much harder than it looks.

I mentioned earlier that Precious is a film that is so harrowing that it barely fits reality. Actually, there are a great many fantasy sequences throughout. The only way Precious can overcome her violent situation is to escape toward vibrant fantasies that embody all of her biggest dreams: to be a superstar, date a light-skinned man, star in a hip-hop music video. These moments comprise some of the very best moments in the film, but also draw upon its harrowing nature. The character of Precious is dealing with such a litany of psychological issues, that even a two-hour film can't properly explain it.

Perhaps Precious' biggest flaw is that director Lee Daniels (producer of Monster's Ball) tries a little too hard to visualize all of Precious' pain. Not only does this lead to rather sad movie, but it also lends to various sequences of over-direction. There is a mixture of flashbacks, surrealism, and musical intervention that clash so often, and I'm not totally sure how effective it is. Any visual motif used more than moderation can become distracting, and Daniels certainly runs his motifs into the ground.

It should be said, though, that Daniels does an astonishing job directing his cast. Dealing with mostly first-timers and non-actors, the actors involved create a world tragedy, while never falling deeply into melodrama. Patton and Carey are exceptional as the two women who choose to right Precious' ship, neither relying on obvious acting, just simply reacting as the events unfold. In her first film, Gabourey Sidibe is given a hell of a responsibility, and she doesn't totally hit it out of the park. As the performance has settled with me, though, I've realized that there couldn't have been a better way to show Precious' total numbness. With a angry glare glued to her bloated face, Sidibe wraps Precious in a sheet of self-loathing neurosis, and she does a good job of doing so.

The show-stopper is comedienne Mo'Nique as the vile, repulsive Mary. Mary hates Precious for "stealing her man", and makes Precious wait on her like a slave: cooking her food, even lying to social workers in order to get more Welfare money. When Precious' therapy leads to their Welfare getting cut off, Mary's ticking time bomb of contention bursts into a mushroom cloud of hatred and violence. In the film's single greatest scene, a defeated Mary tries to explain her horrid behavior to Precious and Ms. Weiss. I won't give away any more details of that particular moment, other than this: it may single-handedly win Mo'Nique a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award.

Precious is certainly the most talked-about film this year. It's being endorsed by Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, and has gotten serious Best Picture buzz. Much like Slumdog Millionaire last year, this makes it nearly impossible to walk in theater with the appropriate expectations. Everything has doubled (or even tripled) since this movie premiered at Sundance this January and everyone was calling it a sleeper pick for the Fall. I don't know, this movie just didn't blow me away. It didn't wreak me emotionally, leave me wanting more. It's a very good film, just not a great one.

Note: This film was originally named 'Push' after the novel it was based on. But when that horrific film of the same name came out earlier this year, Lee Daniels decided to change the name to 'Precious' to avoid confusion. Can't we make a law that forces us to forget all films as horrible as February's 'Push'? Seems strange that 'Precious' would have to conform for that piece of crap.

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