' ' Cinema Romantico: Precious

Tuesday, December 01, 2009


At one point during Lee Daniels' film we find ourselves in an inner city classroom where several students are doing their best just to learn to read. The teacher, Ms. Rain, asks one of the students: "What do I mean when I say the protagonist's circumstances are unrelenting?" How savvy of a film to work its very own theme into the dialogue, eh? Please believe me when I say the circumstances of Claireece Precious Jones are unrelenting. She is sixteen years old, illiterate, obese, and pregnant with her second child (the first has down syndrome). The father of both children is her own father, a man glimpsed only in flashback. Her mother is, quite plainly, a monster. Played with nary a hint of vanity by the comedian Monique she wiles away days in front of a TV, sucking down cigarettes, ordering poor Precious about, and hurling heavy objects in her daughter's direction should those demands not be met. She survives solely because of welfare and thinks Precious should ignore school, too, and get on government aid.

The color scheme employed by Daniels (the movie, as the full title tells us, is based on the novel "Push" by Sapphire) is best described as grimy. The home of Precious provides little light, literally and figuratively. Even the brief scenes in which our protagonist fantasizes herself as a BET singing superstar have a tint recalling a seamy movie you might have found playing in Times Square in the seventies. You will feel unkempt watching and no doubt this is the intention. You will be uncomfortable. It is not, as they say, easy to watch.

But the film, for all its ability to make you feel the desolation of this girl's plight, still makes room for hope, even if it arrives hard earned and in small doses. Gabourey Sidibe is entirely authentic as the title character and even as the film occasionally tries to martyr her she refuses to let the audience off that easily. Monique is earning her Oscar buzz for her vicious turn. The character she portrays initially seems an entirely one note monster yet pay close attention to her long, brutal speech near the end - it adds an extra layer to her mounstrousness. Technically it gives her more depth even if you just dislike her more. Even Mariah Carey appears in a bit part as a social worker. Credit goes to the ultimate diva for donning an unflattering wig, going sans makeup and (if my eyes weren't deceiving me) growing a wisp of a feminine moustache, though let it also be stated her acting is actually quite convincing. I'm proud of her.

The character that struck me the most, however, was Ms. Rain, the teacher at the alternative school, played with an elegant patience by Paula Patton. Working day after day with a mix of students that most of society may have given up on but she hasn't, helping them improve their weak reading levels bit by bit, encouraging them to put their thoughts on paper, rolling with the abuse you unavoidably receive in such a position, uncomplaining in the midst of much fluster relating to the troubles surrounding Precious, helping her every step of the way, but never becoming some over-embellished heroine she emerges as the second leading lady of the film to Sidibe.

What sort of salary, you wonder, does a person like this earn in real life? Slight would be the word that initially springs to mind. This is valiant stuff, this daily struggle Ms. Rain undergoes, that never gets drowned in syrup and schmaltz. People like this are a big part of the backbone of the country, man, so respect the skills.

Precious needs that push in the proper direction and Ms. Rain lends the biggest push of all. The film builds to its final decision (and does not make a certain reveal the movie's point refreshingly) and is smart enough to know once that decision has been made the film must conclude. No extra endings. It is not necessarily a bright ray of hope, nor a glimmer, maybe just a peep. But that will feel like a whole lot after what you've gone through.

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