Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Oct 01, 2009 5:28 pm 
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Dramatic depiction of a black teenage girl's horrific ghetto life

Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire (the film's awkward full title) is treacherous ground for audiences and movie reviewers. How can you be critical of a 300-pound sexually abused, illiterate 16-year-old black Harlem teenager who betters herself? Moreover the film has the warm endorsement of Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry. Oprah says "it split me open," "I've never seen anything like it. The moment I saw (it) I knew I wanted to do whatever I could to encourage other people to see this movie." The film also comes with the mixed blessing of double prizes at Sundance and the audience award at Toronto. The Weinstein brothers fought with Lionsgate for distribution rights; Lionsgate won. It almost makes you want to hate it, and there are things to criticize, but ultimately the movie is so bold, striking, eye-opening and thought-provoking that it inspires respect. The director Lee Daniels, a black man, has done respectably with tough topics before as a producer of Monster's Ball and The Woodsman but in this second outing as a director goes for a stronger impression, with colorful visuals and a host of vivid performances. It's still hard to be tough on the subject matter. But is this a great movie? I don't think so. We're meant to be awed, though, rather than to analyze the film as a film.

Clareece "Precious" Jones (excellent newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) is pregnant with her second child fathered by her own father. She is put down and ordered around by her lazy welfare mother Mary (the explosive and frightening Mo'Nique), who does absolutely nothing but smoke cigarettes and watch TV and expect Precious to cook for her and wait on her. It is the scenes between Precious and her mother that give the film its shock value. There are even brief flashbacks of her father having sex with her. Daniels says this film would "have been X-rated" if he had not introduced colorful brief fantasy sequences that come when Precious wants to escape from her life and imagines herself as a star greeting fans, dancing, escorted and adored by handsome young black men in tuxedos. Precious' voice-over, which is sharp, articulate, and somewhat detached at times, also provides a necessary distancing effect with materials that otherwise would be too harsh and Dickensian to bear -- or perhaps to believe, or take seriously. But the fantasies, in which Sidibe (who in real life is a smart college girl more like Precious' dreams than her reality) excels, also add to the slick artificiality that makes Precious feel too much like Darren Arronofsky's manipulative, stylized morality play, Requiem for a Dream.

Clareece/Precious is big, and sometimes violent, and after she hits somebody in math class who taunts her, she's sent to the principal's office. (She is relatively good at math, or thinks she is, and imagines the white male teacher likes, even loves her.) As a result of this encounter with authority she is transferred to an "alternative" G.E.D.-preparation school called "Each One Teach One," and here her fellow students, an assortment like a female ghetto equivalent of a 40's movie bomb squad, and their beautiful light-skinned black lesbian teacher Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), become a second, better, family for Precious. Under Ms. Rain's patient tutelage she also begins to learn to read and write and speak correctly.

While Precious is reading one of her journal entries, a "fantasy," she goes into labor. The baby is normal and a boy; she names him Abdu. Her previous child is retarded (or autistic?) and she calls her "Mongol" or "Mongo." The class and Ms. Rain rally round her in the hospital, and she meets a kind male nurse, John, played by Lenny Kravitz. Another piece of successful celebrity casting is singer Mariah Carey as Mrs. Weiss, Precious' welfare counselor.

Precious has a horrible clash with her mother that causes her to take Abdu, break into Each One Teach One, and throw herself upon Ms. Rain's mercy. Ms. Rain finds a halfway house where Precious can be safe with her child, but Mary contacts Mrs. Weiss and demands that she be allowed to see the baby and meet with Precious in Mrs. Weiss' office. The film's most appalling moment among many comes when Mary tells Mrs. Weiss about the father's sexual abuse, and what she did, or didn't, do. The movie has Precous say nothing except to tell her mother she never wants to see her again and walk out with her baby. Later she learns she has AIDS, but the baby doesn't. The movie is set in 1986 when this was a terrible fact, but still Precous expects to finish high school and go on to college, and Ms. Rain is encouraging her to give up the baby for adoption so she can pursue an education.

The film is more focused on depicting the girl's horrific situation than on presenting a rounded picture of Harlem life. Precious is larger than life in every sense. Emphatic closeups combine with the voice-over and the DayGlo daydreams to undercut realism further. Saying that this is "the truth" is to say it's a truth that we'd rather overlook, or that perhaps middle class African Americans might rather not think about, or white Americans might prefer not to know. But it's hard to claim as some do that Precious has "utter authenticity." Its "authenticity" is relative and highly cinematic. Lee Daniels has worked well with his well chosen cast and not gotten in the way of what they could do with the explosive material, and consequently, whether this needed another film festival boost or not, Precious seems likely to do better and get a wider audience than the previous films Daniels has been involved with. It does so much to keep you from observing its over-simplifications and artistic shortcuts that you'd be hard put to do so, even if the subject matter did not scream at you to shut up.

Shown at the New York Film Festival in October 2009. Also presented at the Cannes, Toronto, San Sebastian, Tokyo, and London film festivals. The be released by Lionsgate (limited) in early November 2009. Chris Knipp review originally published in the Festival Coverage section of Filmleaf New York Film Festival thread.

(NYFF selection committee member Scott Foundas, reporting from Sundance, wrote a nicely balanced short review for the Village Voice.)

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