November 26, 2009

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Precious (R)
A girl growing up in late-1980s Harlem struggles for a hopeful existence despite her terror-filled childhood in Precious, a movie whose full title is Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire.

Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) is 16, pregnant for the second time (and for the second time pregnant by her father), still in middle school, functionally illiterate and living with a horribly abusive mother, Mary (Mo’Nique). Sent to alternative school after her pregnancy is discovered, Precious begins to blossom under the instruction of Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), a teacher who finally gets a handle on what Precious doesn’t know and teaches her to read and write, and to use these newfound skills to tell her story and begin to assert her own rights in her life.

Precious’ life has clearly featured a string of adults who have either let her down (the social workers who turned a blind eye to the situation with her mother and her daughter, a preschool-aged child with Down’s Syndrome; the teachers who never helped her) or violently betrayed her (her abusive parents). As she meets different adults — her teacher, a social worker beautifully played by Mariah Carey, a nurse played by Lenny Kravitz — she starts to reason out her situation, and to decide that her lot is neither deserved nor to be tolerated. That story sounds very familiar, but it is done much differently here, even differently from completely satisfactory movies like the recent The Blind Side. We really get to see this from the inside out, from the point of view of Precious in a way that is full of drama but still relatively unsentimental. We see the world as she would see it — from the times when she is face down on the sidewalk to the times she looks in the mirror and imagines herself as a thin blonde girl. That girl’s life is not Precious’s life — and even if you’ve never been anything like either girl you can understand the longing, the internal emotions of that.

It almost feels like overkill for me to add my praise for the movie’s performances to the endless list already out there, but here it is: this movie is filled to the brim with excellent performances. Oscar-worthy performances. The monster played by Mo’Nique, the non-naïve idealist played by Patton, the weary Carey and of course Sidibe’s nuanced and fully realized performance as Precious — these should all end up on the nominations list.

Allow me to pile on some more acclaim: despite its absolutely soul-wounding subject matter, Precious is frequently funny; the actors are able to balance the gallows humor and the humanity-based humor in a way that is genuine (and a welcome relief when you’re watching the film). The writing is sharp and we never get those “and here we’re going to state the message” speeches that so frequently kill this kind of movie. I like the way the movie pulls us into Precious’ thoughts via her fantasies, which put her, often in her worst real-world moments, in a world were she is loved, praised and valued.

There is plenty to mull over about this movie — the question of whether it’s poverty porn, the issue of the role race plays. But these things really do seem to be more issues to be discussed and dissected rather than points of criticism of the movie. You can’t go to a place this dark, difficult and complex without getting debate going and that perhaps is one of Precious’ best attributes — that it makes us see these characters, think about them and talk about them. Particularly on issues of poverty, literacy or race, debate, discussion and the creation of more nuanced thinking are always beneficial.

Precious is not the movie you’ll be taking the family to for a relaxing post-Thanksgiving outing. It is not a feel-good movie. But it is strong and worthy of your attention. A

Rated R for child abuse including sexual assault and pervasive language. Directed by Lee Daniels and written by Geoffrey Fletcher (from the novel by Sapphire), Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire is an hour and 49 minutes long and distributed by Lionsgate