Sunday, February 07, 2010
Precious: Based on the Novel PUSH by Sapphire
Here are two words we promise not to use in this review of "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire": monstrous and horrific.
It isn't that those descriptions aren't appropriate. They are. Lee Daniels' astounding second feature is, after all, the pained saga of a child shaped by abuse — sexual, emotional and, yes, socioeconomic.
Claireece "Precious" Jones is a 16-year-old from Harlem who is pregnant (again), illiterate and abused sexually and emotionally by her father (gone) and her mother (present and volatile).
But the words merely capture the pathology depicted in the film. They don't get at its more profound and shattering joy. A dance with darkness isn't the reason "Precious" is so stirring and striking a piece of work, although the comic Mo'Nique's depiction of Precious' mother is unforgettable.
So here are a few of the images that give this bold work its amazing grace and provide evidence of Daniels' deep appreciation of the details that save us: an orange scarf; blue eye shadow; a television clip of Shirley Chisholm announcing her 1972 presidential run.
These are nothing short of signs of life along the way to a woman-child's transformation from lost to found.
And then there is the word that marks the shattering turning point for the Harlem teen who has so much stacked against her that some cynics have likened her to a stereotype missing only the hounds nipping at her heels. That word is "Here."
In a gale-force debut, Gabourey Sidibe sits squeezed into a chair in a classroom at an alternative school. She has been suspended from her public high school. Dangerously overweight, she is a mass. She is impossible to ignore yet invisible to those around her. She is unloved. Yet she harbors some flickering inkling that she deserves better.
Ms. Rain (the luminous Paula Patton) asks her students to say something about themselves. Precious demurs, then changes her mind. It's the first time she's spoken in a classroom.
How does that make her feel? Ms. Rain asks.
"Here." Her voice sounds like it comes from some recess.
"Precious" would not be so soul-rattling if the filmmaking were timid. Daniels is fearless. He seems to have required the same from his actors.
Mo'Nique plunges headfirst into a moral abyss that makes her frightening. Not since Sybil's mom has there been such an indecent parent. Mary has declared open warfare on her daughter. Pans fly. Words devastate. She intends to vanquish. After all, Precious was impregnated by her "man."
"Precious" isn't a tale about rescuers, though there is a village of characters reaching out. A former principal stands outside Precious' apartment building, sucking on a cigarette and carrying on a pivotal conversation on an intercom. A nurse (Lenny Kravitz) tries to school Precious and her "Each One, Teach One" classmates in nutrition.
One critic described "Precious," which won both the grand jury prize and the audience award at Sundance in January, as "poverty porn." It's not. But it is graphic. And it argues a point we all should know: There is something obscene in a wealthy nation's children living in neglect.
Mariah Carey, unadorned and barely recognizable, is subtle as Mrs. Weiss, a welfare caseworker. She is our stand-in in the film's most powerful moment.
If Mary's profanity-laden tirade early in the film ushered us into Precious' hell, the teary monologue that Mary delivers sitting in Ms. Weiss' cubicle with Precious nearby is its differently evil twin. It is a stunning "empathy with the devil" scene.
"Precious" isn't a sociological diatribe. And its story of abuse isn't peculiar to poor folk.
Daniels isn't a practitioner of indie filmdom's "new neo-realism."
He provides pockets of hope. Imagination protects, however briefly. A sexual assault gives way to a paparazzi fantasy. Precious, bejeweled, signs autographs before a thunderstorm and reality set in. The film is not without moments of humor.
Even his use of music eschews the predictable. It's another way he creates an alternative rhythm to the beat-downs Precious receives at home. Sunny Gale's chirpy swing of a hit, "Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?" would seem too obvious a selection for our hero's journey. Instead, it's a gift, to her and us.
Daniels' vision here is closer to that of the novelist Toni Morrison. His real is magical. It goes beyond. It liberates a girl named Precious.
When Ms. Rain first invites Precious to join her in the classroom, the youngster walks slowly, tentatively down the hallway. Daniels makes it look like she's going toward the light. Toward another life.