Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire
Directed by Lee Daniels
Precious isn't about the brutality. It's about the spirit to overcome brutality.
With buzz building about this little-movie-that-could since Sundance earlier this year, a lot has been made of the movie's hefty amount of depressing subject matter. There's Claireece Precious Jones, who's been impregnated twice by her mom's boyfriend (who is also Precious' own father). Throw in a large dose of brutal child abuse at the hands of Precious' mother. There's also a lot of strong language and milking of the welfare system. AIDS kills a major character. And, yes, Precious is only 16 years old, illiterate, very overweight and, at times, she lashes out in the only way she knows how: with the same violence she learned from her parents.
Sounds like a fun time at the movies, right?
Well, the real shocker is just how good Precious really is.
Last year many tried to portray Slumdog Millionaire as a "feel good" movie. Telling the story of a kid living in the slums of Mumbai who relives his childhood while answering questions on an Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, the movie was really two hours of pummeling presented with a unique panache by director Danny Boyle. The only chance to feel good was when the romantic angle came to its overly obvious conclusion and the end credits were accompanied by a Bollywood dance number.
Precious, though, provides a greater sense of optimism and determination; it's a sense that is continually present to offset the cruel darkness of Precious' life in Harlem. What was overly simplistic in Slumdog is fleshed out here to much better effect.
Precious director Lee Daniels
Lee Daniels, producers Gary Magness and Sarah Siegel-Magness,
and Denver Film Society's Britta Erickson
When director Lee Daniels took the stage to introduce Precious at the Starz Denver Film Festival, it was clear the movie was a labor of love. On the verge of tears, he recalled winning an Oscar and winning at Cannes only to be told by Hollywood he couldn't make a movie about an overweight black girl. It was disheartening, but ultimately Daniels himself exhibited perseverance and when the project linked up with Denver-based Smokewood Entertainment, all systems were "Go."
Speaking to the decidedly vanilla audience, Daniels said, "I want to say to all of you beautiful white people in Denver, you should laugh… It is funny. It's dark, but it's funny."
It's a unique accomplishment, one that fully understands life's challenges make successes, big or small, all the sweeter. In the service of that message, there's some great casting against type that yields some incredible performances.
Foremost, there's comedienne Mo'Nique as Precious' abusive mother. Rock star Lenny Kravitz plays a male nurse. And pop diva Mariah Carey goes frumpy and plain-Jane as a social worker. It's time to forget all about Glitter and move on.
Of course, the lead actress, Gabourey Sidibe, is also a revelation. However, some of the hype becomes muffled after finding out Sidibe's 26, not 16. Nonetheless, this is her first movie and her first full-blown acting job. Well done.
As the complete title fully discloses, Precious is based on the novel Push by the poet Sapphire. In many ways, Push is a better title. It's ambiguous only at first blush. It makes total sense by the story's end. Sometimes people need a push to take a stand. Sometimes people need a push to move forward. Sometimes people need a push to save themselves.
Of course, a title like Precious offers a more instant gratification and heartwarming thoughts, so it makes sense the movie would leverage the main character's name.
As for that name, many people want to negotiate the value of Precious based on the impact it has on the real life girls in situations specific to and similar to the lead character. That's a narrow view of a movie that can and should have a much broader appeal and impact.
This isn't a "black people's movie" any more than Slumdog is an "Indian people's movie." It's a movie about human beings and you don't have to be black in order to relate to it or empathize any more than you have to be Jewish to appreciate Schindler's List. The message is about perseverance, about rising above your circumstances, whatever they may be.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.