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Knight Review: Precious
by Richard Knight, Jr.
2009-12-01

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The critical buzz, word of mouth and heavyweight names ( Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, etc. ) attached to the indie drama Precious are so overwhelming that it's become a movie that arrives—as did Brokeback Mountain, Slumdog Millionaire and Pulp Fiction—with enormous expectations.

You sit there in a bit of a "show me the money" mood but, boy, does this movie live up to its hype. Director Lee Daniels—who describes himself as "a little homo, a little Euro and a little ghetto"—works with a Geoffrey Fletcher script adaptation of the book by bisexual author Sapphire ( with the official title of the movie being Precious Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire ) , has wrought an intensely moving underdog story that hits all its melodramatic marks and shoots over those, too. It's one of those movies you can't wait to talk about afterwards.

This tale of an unloved, 350-pound, illiterate Black high school teen in Harlem who is raped and pregnant for the second time by her abusive father is unbearably bleak, but the movie has given its title character—and the audience—the gift of optimism. The film is set in 1987, and when we first see Precious ( played with great intuitiveness by Gabourey 'Gabby' Sidibe in her acting debut ) , she is walking down the street with her mouth set in a closed in pout, staring out at the hostile world with watchful eyes. This is not the kind of physicality the movies have often chosen for audiences to identify with. We are usually cued to see such characters as pathetic losers and, instinctively, we may do that upon first glance at Precious, with her hardened scowl.

But then she speaks to us in voice-over, saying, "Everything in the universe is a gift" and we see the defiant, vivid red scarf—a symbol of her hopes to "break through," as she puts in—and we ascertain the optimistic spark inside. Within seconds, we're caught up in her outcome, rooting for this dour 16-year-old to overcome her unbelievable odds, or at least to find peace within them. In addition to economic and cultural restraints Precious also has a contentious relationship with her horrendous mother, Mary ( Mo'Nique in a career-altering performance ) , to deal with—her biggest obstacle.

To escape these travails Precious has developed a fantasy life—she imagines herself performing "Come Into My House" by Queen Latifah, walking the red carpet, etc.—that will be instantly recognizable for the disenfranchised and, especially, the queer community. ( I'm guessing our closeted, minority members will strongly identify with the fantasy. ) When a tough but determined teacher intuits there's more to Precious than meets the eye and gets her enrolled in an alternative school, our hopes rise. Cautiously, Precious comes into her own, blossoming under the care of patient instructor Ms. Rain ( a luminous Paula Patton ) , whom Precious soon learns is a lesbian. ( "They talk like TV channels I don't watch," Precious says with a touch of awe, listening to her learned teacher and her lover when they meet. )

Daniels is known for making daring casting choices in his movies ( whether he's producing or directing ) and they have paid off in spades—such as an Oscar for Halle Berry and a wondrous character performance by Heath Ledger in Monster's Ball; and the audacity of Shadowboxer, with the romance between Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Helen Mirren. And he does so again by casting comic Mo'Nique as the vicious mother and Mariah Carey as a tough but caring social worker. Carey appears sans makeup and her music-diva drag and makes the most of her screen time while Mo'Nique is simply a force to be reckoned with. She's right up there in the hall of fame of rotten mothers.

But for each small triumph Precious achieves there is a setback—always thanks to the vile mother. The scenes between mother and daughter—the epicenter of the movie—are like great operatic arias and recall other cinematic contests of will between mother and daughter, although there isn't a whiff of camp here. Daniels includes an inspired moment that particularly resonates in which Precious and her mother sit silently, side by side, emotionally a million miles apart, watching Sophia Loren and Eleanora Brown on TV in DeSica's Italian classic Two Women, a movie in which a mother sacrifices everything for her daughter.

We're deep into a matriarchal society and men are on the periphery—glimpsed in gangs as shadowy figures or as figures to be objectified ( Lenny Kravitz as a male nurse ) . Moreover, all the students in Precious's class are female and Daniels captures this closed-off, female-driven world. ( Some of the school scenes, however, lose a bit of their punch as we repeatedly return to the classroom, where the teenage girls kvetch at each other with little variation, but that's a quibble ) . Daniels also brings an innate gay sensibility to the material that queer audiences will instantly recognize and embrace.

Precious is certainly one of the heaviest movies of the year but audiences ready to be challenged by deeper fare will be amply rewarded with an emotionally cathartic experience rare in cinema.

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitytimes.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter Web site.


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