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Entries in Precious [2009] (1)

Monday
Mar222010

Precious (2009)

Ghetto Fabulous

I’ll admit it. Sometimes I’m an asshole.

Here’s a good example: The two times I saw the trailer for Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, I laughed out loud—really, really hard. Both instances were in a movie theatre, mind you, and even the death glares from my wife couldn’t make the giggle fits subside.

I honestly thought I was watching one of the fake trailers from the opening of Tropic Thunder, a brilliant parody of the kind of pandering, over-the-top Hollywood sludge meant to draw the sympathies of an easy audience. The first time I saw Gabourey Sidibe as Precious on-screen, I thought she looked like a black Peter Griffin from Family Guy—not just because of the puffy, exaggerated features, but also the kind of proudly ignorant expression on her face. And, my God, when Mo’nique came stampeding on the scene, her sloppy, un-wigged, chain-smoking buffalo body throwing frying pans, I figured this had to be an Airplane-level genius satire. It suffices to say, I found it hard to believe that Precious became a hit and even garnered Oscars nods in the Drama category.

Well, guess what? Lee Daniels has directed a damned fine film.

The story outline is a bit much to take, on paper, anyway. In 1987, a poor, black, fat, illiterate teenager named Precious must contend with a second pregnancy and her own abusive mother (Mo’nique). The premise is a springboard for a snowballing series of movie-of-the-week heartache that raises the main character’s stakes about every ten minutes: Precious’s first baby has Down Syndrome; the father of both children is her mom’s boyfriend—who has AIDS; Precious gets thrown out of school and must enroll in a special program for misfit Harlem girls—taught by a lesbian. Precious’s mother tries to kill her “ungrateful” daughter; this leads to a scene where we learn that the mom, who is also a sexual abuser, was herself molested and used by all the men in her life. It is Daniels’ deft touch and imagination that keeps Geoffrey Fletcher’s screenplay from becoming an In Living Color sketch.

Though the film wears the skin of similar hard-luck stories like Lean on Me or Stand and Deliver, it has a style and voice that puts it more in the realm of Requiem for a Dream. Both films relied on fantasy sequences that took the main characters out of their terrible lives and also allowed audiences a breather. As Precious is raped by her father—with mom standing in the doorway—she fantasizes that she’s walking the red carpet of a film premiere, greeting the paparazzi with air kisses and swirling around to give them the best glamour shots. When watching TV with her mother, she imagines the two of them in a telenovella lovingly communicating as a family instead of violently thrashing each other. Daniels has a keen eye for literal escapism that lets us know there’s more going on with Precious—the girl and the film—than first impressions might have us believe.

Sitting down to watch the movie, I knew it was loaded with random performers in the supporting cast. Lenny Kravitz, Sherri Shepherd, and Mariah Carey all pop up, and it’s tempting to think of them, cynically, as “star power” to help a little film get a bigger release. It’s true that Carey should stick to singing; her social worker character is written well, and plays a pivotal part in the story; but the diva gives her a ridiculous Brooklyn accent that sounds like Mike Myers in his SNL “Coffee Talk” sketch. Fortunately, both Shepherd and Kravitz really impress as a receptionist and male nurse, respectively. They aren’t at all showy, and their performances are natural to the point of being revelatory.

The real star of the movie, though, is Mo’nique. Sure, Gabourey Sidibe does a solid job, particularly in her scenes with Ms. Rain (Paula Patton, who elevates the Teacher Who Cares role to something just a bit better than the stereotype), but when Mo’nique is on screen, there’s no one else worth watching. Her character’s a monster, but one who was created over time by circumstance and bad choices. Watching this devastating creature flail about in blind rage and then turn on the charms when it’s time to beg for the dole is truly amazing. Mo’nique charges her character with schizophrenic uncertainty, so that the audience never knows what will set her off. By film’s end, when we discover her fate, it’s impossible to feel sorry for her, but it’s just as difficult to writer her off. She, more than anything else, gives Precious a documentary feel that makes the compounding of story points believable and tragic.

No doubt, there are people who will either not watch Precious because they think they know what it’s about (and, worse, don’t care). If you’re on the fence, I can assure you that this is a film worth seeing. It’s easy to write off people like Precious’s family as leeches off the public dime, but having watched this film I feel I have a better understanding of the cycles of abuse, neglect, and violence that make rising above those circumstances seemingly impossible for so many people. This isn’t the kind of movie that ends with a proud teacher high-fiving a class full of students with bright futures ahead of them. It’s a vehicle for promoting empathy and activism, a call to outreach—or at least introspection—and a reminder that there is too large a portion of the population living in the same kind of squalor and hopelessness to be ignored by a nation that calls itself civilized.

In short, Precious is a slap in the face for assholes like me.