Precious

Film Title: Precious – Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire
Director: Lee Daniels
Starring: Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Paula Patton
Runtime: 110 min
Review: Michael Allard
Rating: ****

The nomination of Precious for Best Picture at the 2010 Oscars has come as a very pleasant surprise. True, the Oprah-produced adaptation of the novel Push is not the lowest-budget film to receive recognition this year and yes, the amount of movies nominated in that category has increased from 5 to 10. But out of those 10 films Precious is by far the most transgressive and innovative. It makes recent Best Picture nominees like Juno and Little Miss Sunshine seem laughable as preeminent examples of independent U.S. cinema, and brings together some of the most exciting creative energy you could hope for in screen drama.

The spotlight is on Claireece ‘Precious’ Jones, a semi-literate, fat 16-year-old living in 1980s Harlem with her atrocious couch potato mother Mary, whose daily servings of physical and verbal abuse are shown in all their horror without ever being sensationalised. Precious is suspended from school when it is discovered that she is pregnant with her second child – her first son suffers from Down syndrome and lives with his great-grandmother. In flashbacks, we see her being raped by her father, and discover that he is also the father of her two children. The film chronicles Precious’ life building up to and after this second birth, as she meets intermittently with a social worker, and learns to read and write under an inspirational (but never irritating) teacher at an alternative school.

More often than not, director Lee Daniels takes after the stream-of-consciousness style of Sapphire’s novel and zooms in on Precious’ mind, avoiding her external surroundings as she daydreams. We drift into fantasies of celebrity photo-shoots, see a white blonde girl returning Precious’ gaze in a mirror and are constantly subject to a relentless voiceover. This monologue exists not to narrate, but to voice the character’s thoughts, requiring a high degree of attentiveness from the audience that should be rewarded with multiple viewings.

The finale reaches a place of immense sadness that resists closure, and yet justly grants its heroine a hopeful, seize-the-day independence. On paper, a story of child cruelty suggests social tragedy, perhaps even soap opera, and in the case of Precious the extent of the protagonist’s hardships might seem excessive. It’s a mistake, though, to identify the film as authentic realism. The catalogue of misfortunes instead creates an image of fragility grounded in Claireece’s determination and reinforced by her sense of self-expression. Some things feel slightly unresolved at the end, foregrounding this image above anything else.

Somehow, the egos of Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey are invisible in their believable supporting roles, and Mo’Nique’s performance as Precious’ mother alternates between the visceral and the poignant. To say that Gabourey Sidibe’s performance is brilliant understates the futility of trying to imagine someone else in the role. Yet the very point of the character is to project a narrative of suffering that transcends the identity of a single human. To a widespread audience, Precious’ torturous experience might be impossible to relate to, but it is always tangible.

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