by Marc Glassman
Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
Lee Daniels, director and co-producer. Damien Paul, script. Starring: Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe (Claireece “Precious” Jones), Mo’Nique (Mary), Paula Patton (Ms. Rain), Lenny Kravitz (Nurse John), Mariah Carey (Ms. Weiss), Sherri Shepherd (Cornrows)
Bearing the imprimatur of Oprah Winfrey, Precious delves deeply into dark subjects while remaining relatively conventional in its stylistic choices. This is the Oprah formula, which has worked so well with novels, and should prove equally successful in the film world.
Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire is an incredibly awkward title for this incredibly moving film. A tale of sexual abuse set in Harlem during the mid ‘80s, it’s both devastating and life affirming. Claireece “Precious” Jones is a huge African-American girl, still in her teens, who has been made pregnant by her father—for the second time. Sad, inarticulate and angry, Precious’ silence has helped her to be victimized. She can’t read and, as the film begins, can barely speak.
But a teacher, Ms. Rain, and her classroom full of other dysfunctional girls, build up Precious’ confidence and sense of purpose. Precious learns to read and to confront her angry, unforgiving mother. This is one girl who refuses to lose out in life despite the odds.
Lee Daniels direction is effective, particularly in music video styled fantasy sequences where Precious’ dreams become real, temporarily. Shockingly, she imagines herself to be a beautiful white girl at one point. In another, she’s a dancing queen.
Those fantasy sequences and the ones set in the classroom give the film some much-needed breathing space. Precious could almost choke from inchoate rage, otherwise. Daniels also gets terrific performances from a cast led by non-professional Gabourey Sidibe as Precious and with Mariah Carey, Mo’Nique and Lenny Kravitz.
They exceed expectations, and so does this movie, which deservedly won the Audience Award at TIFF 2009 and should connect with general moviegoers, not just festival film buffs.