Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Precious: A Review


As I watched Precious, one word kept returning to my mind: heartbreaking. It is heartbreaking to see people who should love each other hurt each other so viciously physically, emotionally, psychologically or a combination thereof. It is heartbreaking to see how so many people can go through life with great potential but be ruled out by society at large. It is heartbreaking to watch helplessly as efforts to help people can only go so far. It is heartbreaking to see how the lure of virtually free money can corrupt the human spirit. In spite of all the horror we see throughout Precious, we still get the sense that an individual can not only survive, but thrive.

Our entry into this despairing world is Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), an overweight black teenage girl living in late 1980's Harlem who narrates most of the film. She is a bright individual who loves math but has incredible obstacles. At 16, she is virtually illiterate and pregnant with her second child. 

The father of both her children is her own father. At home, her mother, Mary Johnson (Mo'nique) is beyond sadistic. She is a vicious, angry woman, more interested in her television shows and the welfare check that comes with Precious than in her own daughter. Mary has no qualms about belittling Precious and being violent towards her. Precious handles the sexual and emotional abuse by going into fantasies of glamour, of her being thought of as beautiful and exciting and most sadly, as white. The cruel realities of life, however, always bring her back.

Precious is moved to an alternative school called Reach One Teach One due to her second pregnancy. Here, she meets Miss Rain (Paula Patton), a young, pretty teacher who has the students in the small class write their lives. Precious also comes into contact with a social worker (Mariah Carey), who has to sort out the complex family situation with Precious, Mary, and Precious' children. 

It's at this school where she has a new sense of life and hope, of a world opening up to Precious. After her second child is born, she has one more encounter with Mary, which is extremely painful and difficult to watch. It seems as though every time Precious comes close to gaining a step forward, life pushes her back, with one last blow from both her parents basically dooming Precious.

One runs the risk of frightening people away from Precious if one went by the story itself; the film, however, is much more than a series of horrors inflicted on a black girl who is so wrecked emotionally and physically that she fantasizes on occasion that she's white. The film has parallels to another film about a black woman who is raped and abused but through education and the kindness of strangers (along with a spark within her) rises to believe herself worthy of life: The Color Purple.

Also like in that film, the performances are remarkable. Gabourey Sidibe is magnificent as Precious. She plays her not like a stock victim, but ultimately as a survivor. Sidibe creates a character who still doesn't give up hope, even in her most outlandish fantasies. Paula Patton's Miss Rain is also not just "the inspirational teacher", but a woman who has her own issues and who truly cares about all her students.

I also have to give credit to those performers who have small roles but who also leave an impressive mark. There's the small role of Nurse John (Lenny Kravitz). It may surprise some to see rock star Kravitz in the film. However, his performance is solid as that of a potential love interest who is confident in himself and his masculinity in a female-dominated field. 

Mariah Carey took an enormous gamble by deglamorizing herself and going for an extremely small role of social worker Ms. Weiss. She has about three scenes in the picture, with only the final one being long. However, Carey has disproved definitively that she is just a diva trying to be a film star. In fact, she did what true actresses do: focused on the reality of the character as opposed to the vanity of the performer. By dressing down, we forget that Carey is a singing superstar and believe her to be an overwhelmed case worker who learns a horrifying tale and who is not afraid of confronting the cause of so much misery.

That leads us to Mo'Nique, a true revelation. It's easy to think of her as a raunchy comedienne, but she never hits a false note as Precious' mother. Throughout the film, she is one of the most vile women to appear on the screen, but every now and again, she lets you see the vulnerability and hurt that is within Mary, how in her own way, she let someone else's opinion of her and the conclusions she drew from that ruin so many other lives. At the end, when we hear from Mary, and see how she realizes how it all went so tragically wrong, it tears at you like few performances have. I was on the verge of tears myself, and while I cannot bring myself to excuse or justify all the terrible things she did, we experience some form of catharsis. We get something we wouldn't imagine was possible: a little bit of sympathy for Mary at the end.

Director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher pulled no punches in having us dive headfirst into a nightmare world where people are devalued or considered only for what the welfare check can bring in. They never stray from making this a sadly all-too-real world, no effort to make it pretty or exaggerated. It stays true to life, and we get no sense that the world of Precious is anything other than reality, a horrifying reality but real all the same. There was the occasional odd moment, in particular a subplot involving lesbians that I felt was unnecessary, but those are minor criticisms to an overall excellent film.

Precious isn't an easy film to see. We don't have a happy ending. Even though we know where her life will end up, we still leave with a sense of hope. This is due to Precious herself, someone who has endured the most horrifying and cruel of situations and is able with some good people and her own sense of worth realize that she may be seen as fat, ugly, black, uneducated, but...she's here. She has a right to exist, and have the best life possible. If in nothing else, that's what makes her and the film truly Precious.

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