Precious: Based On The Novel Push, By Sapphire

Director    Lee Daniels
Starring    Gabourey Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Mariah Carey, Paula Patton, Sherri Shepherd, Lenny Kravitz, Stephanie Andujar
Release    6 NOV (US) 29 JAN (UK)    Certificate 15
4 stars


1st February 2010

This year's Oscar race will be in an interesting one. It basically poses the following question to the Academy - what do you place most value on, breathtaking seamless effects and cinematic wow-factor, or films that are propelled by characters and great performances? In other words, it's Avatar versus the little guys. And ironically, given Gabourey Sidibe's size, the littlest of them all is Precious.

As you'll no doubt be aware by now, watching Precious is no picnic. It's harrowing stuff, to the point where you feel pretty guilty that you're sitting in a cosy cinema whiling away a couple of hours before returning to your relatively cushy existence. And you can forget about popcorn - you'll be in no fit state for digestion.

When we pick up her story, 16 year old Claireece "Precious" Jones (Sidibe) lives in Harlem with her abusive mother (Mo'Nique). Precious is pregnant for the second time by her own father, she is illiterate, obese and abused in every way imaginable by her monstrous mother. After being kicked out of school, Precious enrols in an 'alternative' school, where her teacher Ms Rain (Paula Patton) takes an interest in Precious and gradually she learns how to read and begins to develop a sense of self-worth.

What stops Precious from being wrist-slittingly depressing is Precious' resilience and her ability to keep on going no matter what life throws at her. She is strong, courageous, forgiving and bright, and she blossoms through the course of the film, growing ever more articulate and confident. Her determination to defy her background and be a good mother to her two children is admirable.

[gallery]Precious' coping mechanism when the gods are slinging shit at her is to zone out of her situation into a make-believe land in which she is a famous diva adored the world over. It provides a diversion for an audience in need of it, but it is not altogether successful; the idea is stronger than the execution. One of the most moving scenes in the film occurs when Precious temporarily loses her ability to zone out into her parallel universe, and she crumbles under the crushing weight of reality.

There are some lighter moments in the film, mainly courtesy of Precious' classmates, a shambolic but endearing bunch of misfits who gradually form a bond as they help one another along. The friendship Precious sparks up with Ms Rain and with Nurse John (Lenny Kravitz no less) when she is in hospital for the birth of her second child, provide a glimmer of hope in an otherwise hopeless situation.

The film is anchored by outstanding female performances; Sidibe in particular is astonishing. Thank god director Lee Daniels had the good sense to take a gamble on casting her. In this instance, a lack of acting experience was precisely what was needed to achieve the rawness this film required.

Comedian Mo'Nique is terrifying as Precious' mother - there's nothing funny about her. She is cruel, cowardly and troubled; it's impossible not to feel a surge of dread every time she appears on screen. It would have been easy to simply cast her as the wicked witch of the movie, but towards the end of the film we begin to understand her a little more, even if we despise her no less. And yep, they frumped Mariah Carey up for her role as a social worker. It's a little distracting having Mariah pop up in the middle of the film, but she's surprisingly good and she doesn't sing, so it can't be a bad thing.

Precious is by no means a perfect example of filmmaking, but it is raw, honest and important. It is never sentimental, yet it has real heart, and despite the brutality it depicts it is ultimately very inspiring. But for every Precious out there who escapes her circumstances, we'll never know how many do not.

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