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Friday, February 5, 2010

Film Review | Precious


Semi-Precious

by Thomas Delapa

She’s not Beyonce. Nor is she Oprah, Michelle Obama or even Whoopi Goldberg. At age 16, Claireece “Precious” Jones is poor, fat, very black and not beautiful. Life is cheap in Precious’ squalid 1987 Harlem neighborhood, and even her own mother treats here like common dirt.

There’s little surface glitter in the overly titled Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, but this low-budget indie shines nonetheless, grabbing the major awards at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. It may be a breakthrough of sorts, at least in the brave illumination of its ghastly facets of black-on-black crime.

These are characters truly seen through a glass darkly. At her cramped, dismal flat--decorated with circa-1950s wallpaper that seems to crawl--Precious is nearly a slave to her mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), who spends her days smoking, eating and watching TV game shows. A monster in her cave, Mary showers Precious with abuse, both verbal and physical, constantly cutting her down to size. Far worse, Precious has been the victim of unspeakable sexual acts. Not only is the teen already a mother, but she’s pregnant with another child.

In such a grim setting, director Lee Daniels crafts his gem with tools both cinematic and literary. It’s a rare balancing act, and Daniels is at odds to keep from slipping. Throughout the film, we hear Precious’ street-speak interior monologue—often sharp and lyrical, but at times a fractious distraction. Walking alone, Precious talks about how she sees herself as “ugly, black grease to be washed away,” and how her mother told her she wished she had aborted her.

Yet in Precious’ colorful fantasies, she’s a living dreamgirl. She imagines herself living happily ever after with her math teacher, winning a dance contest or, most poignantly, looking at herself in a looking-glass while a beautiful white Alice confidently looks back. As valuable as Precious’ subjective life is to the story, Daniel gilds the lily, burnishing the realism with gaudy flourishes.

At her lowest point (and maybe the audience’s too), Precious is thrown a lifeline, namely an alternative school where she comes under the care of the pretty and supremely dedicated Ms. Rain (Paula Patton). “Everybody is good at something,” declares Ms. Rain, a simple mantra that may well be the antidote to the years of toxic abuse that Precious has endured.

In the title role, newcomer Gabourey Sidibe is plenty good enough. Though sullen and beaten down, Precious sees herself as a diamond in the rough, an independent young woman trying to break out. But it’s Mo’nique--primarily a stand-up comic--who ferociously gives the film its hard bite. There’s nothing holy about this Mary--except as a holy terror. Less can be said about pop diva Mariah Carey, doing temp work as Precious’ stoic social worker. De-glitterized, Carey takes to her plain-Jane role as well as Nicole Kidman took to mopping duty in The Human Stain.

Ironically, the more flash Daniels adds, the less the film sparkles. Yet whatever one’s shade, the righteous, self-reliant message of Precious is worth its weight in gold.

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