By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Nov. 13, 2009
Movies come, movies go. But a rare few arrive like gifts, sent by some cosmic messenger to stir the senses, awaken compassion and send viewers into a world made radically new by invigorated alertness and empathy. Such is the movie "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," which surely qualifies as the most painful, poetic and improbably beautiful film of the year.
It's hard to believe that a movie that traffics so operatically in images of brutality and squalor can be so fleet, assured and lyrical. But such breathtaking contradictions abound in "Precious," which in the course of introducing the viewers to unspeakable despair, manages to imbue them with an exhilarating sense of hope -- if not in a bright and cheery future for the film's beleaguered protagonist, then at least in the possibilities of cinema as a bold, fluent and adamantly expressive art form.
That beleaguered protagonist is Claireece "Precious" Jones (played in an astonishing debut by Gabourey Sidibe), a 16-year-old girl who, as the movie opens, is still attending junior high school in 1980s Harlem. Morbidly obese, functionally illiterate, pregnant with her second child after being raped by her father, Precious lives with her mother, Mary (Mo'Nique), in a squalid apartment where she endures the latter's near-constant verbal, physical and sexual abuse. Precious's only escape from this lurid tableau is rich, glittery fantasy life, in which she has a "light-skinned boyfriend" and "good hair," dresses in ball gowns and carries a little terrier.
Precious is numb, shut down, locked behind protective layers of fat and clothing, her hooded eyes nearly sightless slits. She's invisible, even to herself: When she looks in the mirror, a blond, blue-eyed teenager gazes back. But when an attentive principal enrolls her in an alternative education program, Precious's mountainlike passivity and self-abnegation begin to give way to tiny, seismic temblors of transformation.
Adapted from a 1996 novel by the poet Sapphire, "Precious" has been a hit on the film festival circuit, earning a clutch of audience awards -- and, at Sundance earlier this year, the support of Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, who signed on as executive producers.
Director Lee Daniels ("Shadowboxer"), working from a script by Geoffrey Fletcher, doesn't flinch from confronting viewers with the most squalid, violent depredations Precious suffers at her mother's hands. But he instinctively knows when to offer viewers and his heroine much-needed relief, by way of brightly lit, sumptuously staged magical realist sequences portraying Precious's glitzy daydreams. He pulls off this audacious balancing act throughout "Precious," which toes a vertiginous line between the grim and highly stylized.
But as adroitly as Daniels handles the multilayered details, textures and tones of "Precious's" rich visual design, his most crucial task is giving his cast the space needed to deliver revelatory, searingly honest performances. Sidibe's nuanced, deeply sympathetic portrayal of a character who is almost completely inert for most of the movie recalls Billy Bob Thornton's highly praised breakout turn in "Sling Blade."
Technically, hers is a far more difficult role than the toxic, rage-fueled monster brought to life by Mo'Nique, who delivers a performance that constantly teeters on the edge of going over the top, but somehow manages to stay on the side of credibility. Mo'Nique, best known and loved for her persona as a stand-up comedienne and comic actress, is rightly being praised for a brave performance untouched by vanity.
Together, she and Sidibe form a formidable dyad that gives "Precious" its dysfunctional centrifugal force. But the entire enterprise is best appreciated as a bracing ensemble piece, in which even the smallest roles harmonize flawlessly within the whole. The gorgeous Paula Patton breathes radiant but bone-weary life into what could have been a stock character of the tireless English teacher. Rather than the reassuring reversals of a miracle worker or "I can reach these kids!" speeches, her character, Ms. Rain, wrings incremental victories from a world proscribed by Rolodex contacts and bureaucratic red tape. And not one but two pop stars prove their dramatic bona fides in "Precious": Lenny Kravitz as a cute, compassionate hospital nurse, and Mariah Carey, in a mousy wig and devoid of makeup, delivering a frank, utterly winning performance as a seen-it-all social worker.
"What does it mean when the author describes the protagonist's circumstances as unrelenting?" Ms. Rain asks at one point. That's precisely the question posed by "Precious," in which the title character withstands such a constant plague of social ills that she's in danger of becoming little more than a simplistically drawn, even grotesque, poster child. (The same can be said for Mo'Nique's Mary, who in many ways embodies all-too-familiar stereotypes of welfare queens and the pathology of poverty.)
That "Precious" dodges these toxic assumptions, even while coming perilously close to perpetuating them, is a testament not only to the sensitivity and artistry of Daniels's filmmaking, but also to the fierce performances of actors who, rather than skimming the surface of their characters, invariably dive ever deeper inside, taking viewers with them.
That journey winds up being excruciating, exhausting and, against all odds, deeply rewarding. Just how rewarding probably will become clear to viewers when they emerge from "Precious" to find that life outside the theater has come into a different kind of focus. "Precious" performs the same miracle as every great work of art: It gives its viewers new eyes, and the sense that they'll never see the world -- or the people in it -- in quite the same way.
Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire (109 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for child abuse, including sexual assault, and pervasive profanity.