A film review by Craig J. Koban February 3, 2010
PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL
"PUSH" BY SAPPHIRE
2009, R, 109 mins.
2009, R, 109 mins.
Precious: Gabourey Sidibe / Mary: Mo'Nique / Ms. Rain: Paula
Patton / Nurse John: Lenny Kravitz / Ms. Weiss: Mariah Carey /
Cornrows: Sherri Shepherd
If you exclude the film’s
exasperatingly long-winded title, PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL “PUSH”
BY SAPPHIRE is a drama of unflinching rawness, shockingly raw social
commentary, and a portal into the deplorable underbelly of those that live
on the far fringes of society.
I have often commented that the great, masterful films work as
out-of-body experiences: they transport viewers to different times and
places and let us view into the lives of people we may, under normal
circumstances, never cross paths with.
PRECIOUS, on those levels, is a masterpiece of immersing audience
members into its appalling urban nightmare.
It’s moving, transfixing, harrowing, and frequently traumatizing;
even the coldest-at-heart filmgoers will not come out of this film
PRECIOUS is a relentlessly depressing film at times and is an oftentimes sickening portrayal of one young teenage girl’s hopeless existence in a world of chronic debasement, physical and verbal abuse, and the unavoidable truth that no family member truly loves her. The way that the film's director, Lee Daniels (who made a name for himself producing the stirring and provocative MONSTERS BALL) courageously approaches PRECIOUS’ polarizing and shocking material is to be commended: He thrusts viewers head first into the film’s late 1980’s, impoverished inner city environment and never looks back.
There are times when even the
implacable critic in me was deeply distressed and terrified by the
onslaught of social atrocities presented here, but no matter how distressing
and demoralizing PRECIOUS is, it's a marvel to behold for its artifice: it
contains performances of such deeply felt and penetrating naturalism and intrepid
direction of such exhilarating, never-look-back confidence that it’s
impossible to react negatively to the film’s craft.
More importantly, as heartbreaking and distressing as the film is,
the most important element of its main themes is hope; hope that a young
woman that is spat on by the ones that she should rely on the most will rise above
it all to embrace a self-actualized person within her.
Alas, such discoveries are not made without
huge emotional costs, as far too many sugary and
shamelessly manipulative inspirational dramas fall to embellish.
I have never seen such a
anguished and abused teen character in a feature film before:
“Precious” Jones (played by an extraordinary newcomer, Gabourey Sidibe, more on her later) is an illiterate, morbidly obese, and
poor 16-year-old African America girl that has virtually no hopes
for a brighter future.
Her daily existence is nothing short of a living hell: She resides
in a deplorable slum tenement with her mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), a woman
hurtles insults, fists, and objects at her daughter with the ferocity of a
Mary is a reprehensible parental persona of limitless contempt: she
is unemployed, remains at home all day and night where she drinks, eats,
and watches TV, and when he daughter returns home from school she lashes
out four and twelve letter prefaced insults and tirades on her that would
make longshoremen cringe.
When she is not barking orders at Precious to make her food, fill
her drink cup, or pick up her welfare check, she still manages to find
the time to sexually abuse her when the moment presents itself.
As for Precious’ father?
He apparently is even more of a grotesque fiend.
He has managed, in the past, to viciously beat and rape her not
once, but twice and has nauseatingly fathered two children with her as a
result (as the film opens she is pregnant with the second).
The first incest-spawned baby has severe Down Syndrome and is so
depressingly unable to perform basic motor functions and speak that she
is constantly referred to as “Mongo”by Mary (she also deplorably uses
the pathetic child as a prop whenever social services comes her way).
Precious is always tormented by the memories of the nights when her
father forced himself upon her, but she frequently escapes (throughout the
most dire times in the film) to fantasies concocted in her mind, which
portray her as famous, glamorous, and loved.
Precious' voice over track during these MTV-inspired dream interludes only
further establishes not only her lofty hopes and dreams, but her
inner turmoil and body disturbance issues: “I wish I had a light-skinned
boyfriend with real nice hair.
And I want to be on a cover of a magazine.
But first I want to be in one of those BET videos.”
At one sad moment she looks in the mirror and her reflection is a
young, skinny, Caucasian blond woman.
The fantasies she creates are the only places where she is revered
or given any consideration.
After the discovery of
Precious’ second pregnancy, she is abruptly suspended from school, but
her junior high principle does see potential in her to better herself.
As a result, she arranges to have her attend an alternative school
for learning in hopes that a new environment will act as a springboard for positive change.
Although her first few days in her new school are
troublesome and awkward, Precious discovers a new ally and friend in Ms.
Rain (Paula Patton, beautiful, exquisitely tender and sincere here) who
displays a genuine regard for her students' well-being during times when no
one else in their lives will.
Of course, Precious’ mother vehemently detests her daughter trying to
further her book smarts, seeing as she routinely decrees to her that she
is fat, ugly, hopeless, and has no chance of anything other than a welfare
Fortunately, Precious’ strong bond with her new teacher and her
social worker, Mrs. Weiss (an utterly unrecognizable Mariah Carey, totally
shredding away her glitzy pop culture diva façade in spades here), but
things get very disconcerting when she gradually reveals to Weiss the
nature of her two babies and her overall relationship to her mother.
After Precious finally gives birth to her boy she also has to deal
with the horrendous news regarding her father that could mean the death
sentence to both her and her newborn.
PRECIOUS – which was adapted
by Geoffrey Fletcher from the award winning 1996 novel PUSH by Sapphire, a
former teacher – is the kind of film that THE
BLIND SIDE desperately needed to be.
That Sandra Bullock feel-good feature also dealt with an African
American teen character that tried to rescue himself from the appalling
and destitute landscape of street life.
Both PRECIOUS and THE BLIND SIDE deal with adolescent characters
that are not loved nor nurtured by their biological families and, as a
result, they must find a conduit deep within their own souls to liberate
themselves from their unforgiving realities.
Yet, what left such an odious taste in my mouth from THE BLIND SIDE
was how little attention it gave to the Michael Oher character, the real
hero of the film, and instead it aggravatingly wasted time propping up his rich,
do-no-wrong, evangelical foster parents as the real champions of change
(the film’s inverse racism with its focus was more than fleeting).
THE BLIND SIDE felt like pure Hollywood-concocted,
audience-placating make-believe compared to the brutally uncompromising
situation that its title character is established in.
Daniel’s fly-on-the wall treatment and presentation of the
calamitous and nightmarish daily ordeals that his main character suffers
through is brewed with such a spontaneous and undaunted veracity: he is
not afraid to go down any potentially traumatizing avenue (which makes the
film breathe with the realism of a documentary at times).
THE BLIND SIDE, by comparison, was too taken away with whitewashing
its potentially dark material for the benefit of securing a large, PG
Also liberating is how much
PRECIOUS does not succumb to stale and overused inspirational-movie-of-the-week
conventions that, again, THE BLIND SIDE fell victim to at every moment.
PRECIOUS has ample moments that are both heart wrenching and
inevitably rousing, but this is a film that makes its audience work
overtime for its feel-good sentiment.
I’ve seen so many countless films about underprivileged urban
kids trying to make something of their hopeless lives, often to the point
where the manipulation of their plots can be seen from a proverbial mile
PRECIOUS never once contrives or takes short cuts for a “happy” ending, nor
does it resort to deceitful bait and switch tactics to please audiences.
This is a dire film about dire circumstances involving
characters and even when the underdog does indeed free herself, she
still faces unquestionable personal odds and barriers, and the way the film grounds
itself in such a tangible verisimilitude is its finest trait.
The performances here are as astonishingly
assured as any you are likely to see in 2009.
Sidibe was chosen over 300 girls during casting calls and
despite the fact that she had no formal acting training prior to filming,
her performance is miraculous in how well she embodies the introverted
trauma that her character deals with everyday.
She is a massive shell of a human being, with an inexpressive face
that hides her real feelings while simultaneously revealing volumes about
her mental state: it’s one of the most startling debut performances
Also brilliant are Paula Patton as the teacher (showing a
level-headed and gentle mercy without repressing to inner city teacher
stereotypes) and Mariah Carey, who remarkably creates such a beleaguered
authenticity with her social worker role.
She’s as much of a pure revelation as Sidibe is, and the way
Carey commands a quite spoken, but inwardly powerful presence is one of the
film’s masterful coups.
This is not one iota of her glossy singing persona here.
This is not one iota of her glossy singing persona here.
And then there is Mo’Nique, a stand-up comedian that may have trouble making people laugh at her again with the way she completely invests herself in her morally reprehensible character. Mary just may go down in movie history as one of the most loathsome and demonical paternal figures ever committed to screen. It would be easy to see a lesser actress build this character to the point of lame and grotesque caricature, but Mo’Nique not only thoroughly creates a figure of repugnant hostility, but also hints at the warped and damaged inner psyche of this deeply unstable woman. In one of the most memorable verbal standoff scenes I recall, Mo’Nique’s Mary feebly tries to relay to Carey’s social worker why she allowed her husband to sexually accost her infant daughter and how that action hurt her more than her daughter; the way Mo’Nique conveys this woman’s eerie disregard for Precious while wearing a pathetic veil of false sincerity is haunting. At this moment in the film your rooting interest in Precious to emancipate herself fully from this malicious creature is at its highest, and if you make it to this point in the film and follow through to its ambiguous, but hopeful, conclusion, then you’ll find yourself touched and stirred in ways that few mainstream dramas do.