Thursday, November 19, 2009

Review: "Precious"

Clareece "Precious" Jones is one of the greatest cinematic heroes of all time.
In the movie that bears her name, she may not seem like such an admirable figure at first blush. She's 16 years old and illiterate, pregnant with her second child, morbidly obese and barely skating by in school.

But her life is such a crucible of pain, a never-ceasing litany of abuse and degradation, that just surviving makes her admirable. Persevering, and refusing to give in, make her braver than a hundred action stars.

"Precious" is everything you've heard, and more.

Technically, the full title is "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire." It's burdensome, but at least it will be interesting to see how they fit it on the title cards at next March's Academy Awards telecast, where this film is destined to be well-represented.

Gabourey Sidibe, in her first acting role, plays Precious. Outwardly, she is unexpressive, barely ever speaking and hardly allowing a flicker of emotion to visit upon her broad face. Inside her mind, though, is a flight of dreams and thoughts she uses to transport herself out of the hellhole that is her life -- fantasies about fame and fortune, and a "light-skinned boyfriend with good hair."

The source of her pain is her mother, who hurls epithets, blows and acidic vitriol at her only child. Played by Mo'Nique in a brave performance without an ounce of vanity, Precious' mother is a woman who lacks a life of her own -- she has no job, no romantic partner and no love to give. She feeds off Precious like a leech, forcing her to cook and clean while she sits all day in the house watching idiot TV.

Other women offer rays of hope into the girl's life, though. There is the social worker, played by Mariah Carey, who has the well-practiced indifference of a bureaucrat, but whose heart is touched by this poor, sad girl.

And there is Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), the teacher at the alternative school where Precious is placed after getting thrown out of her own institution. Ms. Rain is pretty, well-educated and represents a world that is alien to Precious. When she is invited to stay in her teacher's home to get away from her mother, Precious listens to Ms. Rain and her partner converse and thinks, "They talk like TV channels I don't watch."

I will not lie: "Precious" is a tough, tough film to watch. I've held off telling you some of the most terrible deeds portrayed in the movie, in hopes of not scaring you off. But you need to know.

Precious was raped by her own father, who sired both her expected baby and her first child -- who has Down's Syndrome and is referred to as "Mongo," short for mongoloid. Her mother did nothing to prevent this, and indeed her metastasizing hatred for Precious is based on her belief that her daughter stole her man away from her.
These acts are unspeakable. Even the bravest souls would want to wither and die from being touched by them.

But Precious keeps going. She has struggles, experiences setbacks and moments of despair. But with the help of Ms. Rain and a handful of fellow troubled students, Precious never quits.

This extraordinary film was directed by Lee Daniels from a screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher. It is a portrait of human ugliness that is nearly unbearable to watch. But it's a movie that cries out to be seen, wept over, discussed -- and cherished.

3.5 stars out of four

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