Thursday, December 31, 2009

Precious ***

*** out of ****

The trailers for Precious make the film look like a cliche-ridden inner-city fable. Just goes to show you can't judge a movie based on its trailer. Precious is something unique. It's not the feel-good movie of the year, although you do walk away feeling a little better. It's also not a big downer of a movie like I was expecting it to be.
The title character Precious is an overweight teenager in Harlem in 1987. Her mother hates her and beats her at every opportunity, while her father sexually abuses her. She's pregnant with her second child- both from her father, she's almost illerate, and is so poor she has to steal fast food to survive. She uses her imagination to escape from her horrible existence, imagining herself as a celebrity with a hunky boyfriend, fans screaming for her autograph. After the school discovers she's pregnant, she is kicked out and transferred to an alternative school to help her get her GED. Her teacher is the lovely Ms. Rain, who makes her class keep a journal and write in it every day, forcing Precious to learn to read and write better. We see her slowly make progress in school and even make friends with the quirky girls in her class, even as things get worse and worse at home with her mother, a welfare whore. Eventually she gives birth to her baby, causing many things to change in her life and for the first time, she starts to think for herself.
Praise has to be given for the outstanding, almost-all-black cast, of which there are no slackers. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe as Precious (not only her first film role, her first professional acting role!) is completely convincing and heartrending. When we first meet her, she doesn't have much of a personality; she mostly just sits quietly and then talks tough when forced to talk. She gradually learns it's ok for her to be herself. Comedienne Mo'Nique makes a complete transformation for her role as Mary, Precious' mother, dirtying up her usual glamorous looks and letting loose endless diatribes towards her daughter about how stupid and worthless she is. Mariah Carey also makes herself memorable with just a few scenes. She plays a social worker Precious talks to occasionally. She also de-glamorizes herself; the scratchy voice is a nice touch, but seeing her character try to remain neutral and not get emotionally involved is where she establishes herself as a talented actress. Kudos also goes to the director Lee Daniels, who was willing to make very unusual casting decisions (it also includes The View host Sherri Shepherd and singer Lenny Kravitz), and for casting someone like Sidibe in a lead role, especially one that's gotten this much attention. Both Sidibe and Mo'Nique are Oscar-worthy; they force you to keep your eyes on the screen when you might want to look away.
Even though the film is very good, I find it hard to recommend it very strongly. It's one of those indie films that offers little entertainment value to the average moviegoer, one of those indie films that no one would see if it wasn't for the strong Oscar buzz, or the Oprah Winfrey seal of approval. At times the film is extremely unpleasant- which it needs to be in order for the viewer to understand the story. While everything is shown onscreen, luckily, nothing is explicit. There is also a gentle sense of humor beneath all the ugliness.For those who can stomach it, this is a grand story of a girl becoming a woman in a cruel world that has forgotten about her.
I would recommend this film to people who like gritty dramas, or whoever listens to Oscar buzz.

You can watch the trailer here:

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