Oscar buzz before a film has premiered is certainly normal, but Oscar buzz before a project has even entered a day of shooting? Very far from the norm. But that’s exactly what happened in the case of Lee Daniels director Precious, currently playing in selected theaters. The initial script, based on the novel Push by urban writer Sapphire, was garnering a lot of industry attention before even one scene had been shot. Then, when over a year ago, a final draft script fell into my hands, I realized what the buzz was all about and thought, if someone can pull off a story as extreme as this, I might have faith in the movie making business again.
Consider my faith restored. Precious is the tragic yet all too real story of Claireece Precious Jones, an obese teen from Harlem who, even though she is 16, has been left behind so many times that she is still in the 8th grade and nearly illiterate. Precious lives in poverty, physically abused daily by her mother, and is pregnant with her father’s child for the second time. When school finds out she is pregnant, Precious is sent to an alternative school. There she meets Ms. Rain, a teacher who refuses to accept anything less than the best. Precious is immeasurably inspired by Ms. Rain. And although the road in her life is hard–Precious is diagnosed with HIV, fights some literally indescribable battles with her mother, and challenges herself academically–what is most admirable about Precious is that she faces each challenge as best as she can. The film doesn’t sugar coat her difficulties; we never feel like there is a big happy ending about to pop out from the shadows and scream “surprise, life’s gonna be a breeze”! Precious‘ shows that life, no matter the circumstances, is truly livable for those who are willing to give it a fighting chance.
Precious is beautifully shot in mostly close-ups, appearing documentary in style. The colors throughout the film remain very drab and gritty, except for the fantasy sequences. These occasional interruptions, the daydreams about light-skinned’ boyfriends, movie premieres and music video shoots that Precious relies on when her life gets too tough, are lush, lavish and shot in bold and bright reds, purples and yellows. They lend the film a sense of comedic and visual relief from the bleak world that the characters normally lives in.
What is truly buzz-worthy about Precious though are two star-making performances in particular, one from Mo’Nique who plays Precious’ mother Mary, and the other from newcomer Gabourey Sidibe who plays Precious. Both women tackle roles that require them to portray characters so unlike anything they possibly could ever be like in real life with sensitivity and candor. Gabourey transforms Precious from a visually repulsive character to one that our heart aches for. Her recreation of the tragedy of life is powerful and realistic at the same time–she wallows in Precious’ pain at times, while at other times is remarkably confident. The best word to describe Gabourey’s interpretation of her character is honesty, and the role will be her star-making turn.
Even better than Gabourey’s performance is Mo’Nique’s. If anyone should get an Oscar out of this, it’s the former The Parkers’ star. A comedian by trade, it’s shocking to see Mo’Nique as a villainous figure. However, what is most shocking is that Mo’Nique gives a human face to the issue of parental abuse and incest. When she explains why she allowed sexual abuse in her home and why she herself abused her daughter, for one moment the face of a monster fades away and all the audience can see are insecurities that are at their core identifiable.
The film also sees decent performances from Mariah Carey, who was cast as Precious’ social worker, and organic-food eating male nurse Lenny Kravitz. Paul Patton, Ms. Rain, is full-hearted in her performance, but lacks the ferocity that would have made her character more of an inspirational one.
In popular culture, movies are entirely escapist. We go to theaters to forget our problems, not relive them. So when a film like Precious comes along to expose some of America’s deepest, darkest social ails including poverty, welfare, lesbianism and incest, I have to wonder if American audiences are ready to deal with issues they spend all day trying to forget. Executive producers Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey, the driving forces behind images of “positive Black America”, do an excellent job of allowing these themes to exist for the most part in their rawest forms. Although at times Precious veers a little too far into commercial fluff territory, and the portrayal of dark-skinned characters as villians while the light-skinned characters functions as saviors is borderline offensive, it is a shining gem of an effort by Lee Daniels that reminds us that “everyone’s good at something”.
Precious opens nationwide on November 20th, and is the 2009 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize Winner.