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Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire (Lions Gate Films, R)

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precious-header.jpgIt's smart, it's shocking, it doesn't follow the rules, it's not the sort of thing that would ever come out of a major Hollywood studio, and it's really fantastic.

 

The clunkily-titled Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire is the exact kind of movie I love to go to the Sundance Film Festival for. It's smart, it's shocking, it doesn't follow the rules, it's not the sort of thing that would ever come out of a major Hollywood studio, and it's really fantastic. However, I did not have the opportunity to see Precious at Sundance when it premiered there in January, and in its wake I've been hearing about how great it is for about ten months, which is pressure even the best films can't live up to half the time.

Precious is about 16-year old Claireece "Precious" Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), who is nearly illiterate, lives with one of the most hateful women on the planet (comedienne Mo'Nique, as Precious' mother thoroughly evil Mary), and is pregnant for the second time by her father, who apparently only comes home often enough to rape her. Given the subject matter, and that it's all treated relatively unflinchingly, it's amazing the support this film has gotten from both the media and audiences already—to offer a couple of examples, after its premiere at Sundance both Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry signed on as executive producers, and it broke per-screen average records in its first week of limited release.

If you're so inclined, it's easy to find flaws in Precious and to dwell on them, as it has its share. There are frequent, hackneyed fantasy sequences where Precious imagines she lives the life as a beauty queen or as a dancer in a music video or what have you, and all of these sequences really only serve to take the viewer out of the movie without adding anything to it (which for some people might be welcomed, I guess). As the film progresses, Precious finds herself at an alternative school (despite her inability to read or write, Precious has received good grades from a poor school system most of her life; she's sent to the alternative school only because she's pregnant again), and at this point it veers maybe a little too close to the clichéd inspirational teacher story.

While these complaints are valid, you ultimately have to be trying really hard to act as if they detract from what is otherwise a thoroughly astounding movie. While on the whole almost everything about it is note-perfect, it really excels in two unlikely categories: its cast and its message of hope.

In the title role, newcomer Sidibe is heartbreaking as Precious, but she's also so restrained in the role that you might not notice how good she is—look into her impassive face and see if you can find all of the pain lurking beneath the surface. The real scenery-chewer here is Mo'Nique, in what is easily the single best performance of the year—I'd be shocked at this point if she doesn't win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, and if she doesn't, it will probably only be because Academy voters won't have been able to make it all the way through this brutal film (a comparable scenario with a comparably unpleasant film would be like how Ellen Burstyn didn't win for Requiem for a Dream back in 2001). But on top of those two key roles filled by unlikely people is a whole cast of supporting characters filled by even more unlikely people—most of them are newcomers like Sidibe, but the otherwise-despicable Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz turn up as a social worker and a male nurse, respectively, and both actually do pretty amazing jobs (though not nearly as much as required of them as is Sidibe and Mo'Nique). Remember feeling surprised watching Alpha Dog a few years back and seeing how good Justin Timberlake was? This is kind of like that.

And then there is the film's overall feeling of hope, which borders on miraculous-it never gets too cloying, and even stranger is that it never actually shows that the characters have any reason for hope, and yet it maintains a feeling of hope throughout. I'm a fan of unrelenting films—Irreversible, Antichrist, A Hole in My Heart—and while Precious is not nearly as graphic as those films are, they all three are pretty much outright nihilist, where Precious somehow leaves you with the deluded feeling that everything's going to work out. Part of me feels like it's almost cheap or manipulative to leave the audience with this feeling, but the other part of me is impressed that the film can pull it off at all, given that it never remotely lets its characters out of the line of fire.

That is to say, while Precious is maybe just shy of the perfect film it has been hyped up to be, it is nonetheless a great and important one, and I am nothing but delighted by its previous and certain future success; it seems like society would function a lot better if people start seeing movies like this more often. | Pete Timmermann

 

Official website: www.weareallprecious.com/

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