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Dustin Putman

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Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire  (2009)
4 Stars
Directed by Lee Daniels.
Cast: Gabourey 'Gabby' Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, Sherri Shepherd, Nealla Gordon, Stephanie Andujar, Amina Robinson, Chyna Layne, Xosha Roquemore, Angelic Zambrana, Nia Fraser, Sapphire.
2009 – 109 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence, sexual assault and pervasive language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 29, 2009.
Harlem, 1987. Clareece 'Precious' Jones (Gabourey 'Gabby' Sidibe) is sixteen years old and pregnant for the second time. She has yet to graduate from junior high and barely knows how to read on a first-grade level. Before getting kicked out of her public school, her guidance counselor asks her, "How did this happen?" "I had sex," Precious matter-of-factly replies. That is certainly true, but not the whole story. Those not in Precious' precarious position can sit back and sternly judge her, stereotype her, or chalk her up to just being another rotten kid gone wrong. In some ways, that is exactly how she has gotten into the mess she is in. By hiding her grotesque home life—she lives with an unthinkably abusive mother (Mo'Nique) and has been impregnated both times by her otherwise mostly estranged father, resulting in one mentally challenged child they have distastefully named "Mongo"—and receiving little help from a negligent education system that lets her slide by without doing any work, Precious has spent her entire life slipping through the cracks. Everyone has failed her in the past, and so it is natural for Precious to remain skeptical when she is placed in an alternative school called "Each One, Teach One," preparing illiterate students so that they may be able to eventually take classes to earn their GEDs, where the empathetic teacher, Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), takes an active interest in her well-being. Alas, just as Precious starts to come out of her shell and consider the possibility of making something of herself, she is knocked down once more with some harsh, life-changing news.

From the purposefully mistake-ridden opening credits written as Clareece might spell them all the way through to an ending that signals a moment of personal triumph without letting any of its participants off easily, "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" is a stunner of a drama, one of the year's best and boldest. The focus never moves away from the title character. This is her story above all else, and it is through her eyes and ears and voice that we are invited into her none-too-pleasant world, an environment one wouldn't wish on their worst enemy. Director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher show immense compassion for their human subject and her dire circumstances, giving her, baby-step by baby-step, the tools to potentially better herself. Nevertheless, their gaze on reality is uncompromising, and never do they cut corners to falsely orchestrate pat or easy answers. For every instance of good fortune life hands you, there are negative unforeseen twists of fate waiting to pounce, and so it goes with Clareece 'Precious' Jones. No matter what positive strides she makes, she's never going to have it easy.

As bad as Precious has it, it helps that she is written with such an aching understanding. She is not some unblemished martyr—in one scene, she steals a bucket of fried chicken without paying for it—but she is also not some clichéd problem child who sleeps around, sells or does drugs, or is altogether unpleasant to be around. Overweight and beat down, Precious is a soft-spoken soul with a good heart and attractive daydreams to take her away from the horrors she faces. She's big enough to stand up for herself—she is not afraid of assaulting any peer with something snide to say about her—but no matter how physically imposing she may be, director Lee Daniels never lets the viewer forget the child inside her. In a debut performance of heartbreaking complexity, Gabourey 'Gabby' Sidibe is nothing short of astounding. Her every word, facial expression and bone is an honest one, Clareece's true-life quiet and shut-off personality at startling odds with her fantasy imaginings of being a luxurious model and an outgoing actress signing autographs at her movie premiere. In moments like that, the viewer sees the different sides of Sidibe and makes note of how capable she is of authentically portraying a wide range of emotions and character types.

Sidibe is remarkable, no doubt, but she is given a run for her money by an entire supporting cast doing their strongest work, to date. At the top of the ladder—the one who might as well clear mantle space for her upcoming Academy Award—is Mo'Nique (2008's "Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins"), ferociously essaying one of the most monstrous onscreen parental figures in cinematic history as Mary, Precious' unemployed, game show-watching, welfare-cashing mother. The root to Mary's abuse will not be revealed here—the whole truth behind her sick frame of mind comes out in a climactic sequence nothing short of show-stopping in its writing and acting—but Mo'Nique pulls off this virtually irredeemable character with nary a seam of artifice showing. Simmering with an outward hatred used to shield her own self-loathing, Mary's household is one that goes beyond dysfunction into the abhorrent, and her near-constant taunts at Precious that she is worthless, fat, stupid, and should have been aborted are only the tip of the iceberg. Watching Mo'Nique in her every passing moment, from her gross cruelty toward Precious, as dark and hopeless as pitch, to a scene where she must play the part of a caring, responsible grandparent when social services pays a visit (Mary's own mother is really the one who has been raising Precious' first child), is simply breathtaking; you cannot take your eyes off of this woman, heretofore best known for her comedic skills, whose horrifying performance should go down as iconic—one of the all-time greats.

The exquisitely penned roles don't stop there. Paula Patton (2008's "Mirrors") is lovely as Ms. Rain, Precious' alternative school teacher. Warm yet mindful of the fact that her troubled students do not often make it in the dangerous world outside her classroom, Ms. Rain nonetheless gives her all to these kids with their success, however minor, her only reward. As one of the few authority figures in her life to give her the time of day, Patton is a memorable, shining beacon, a symbol of hope amidst the storm. The same could be said of Mariah Carey (2001's "Glitter"), proving her acting naysayers wrong with her understated, well-modulated turn as Mrs. Weiss, a welfare worker who senses not all is right with Precious' domestic life. Going all natural and free of make-up, a vanity-free Carey blends right in with the rest of the ensemble and shows what she's working with. Lenny Kravitz, like Carey, is practically unrecognizable while avidly impressing as John, a male nurse who befriends Precious when she gives birth to her second child. The same goes for Sherri Shepherd (2005's "Beauty Shop") as Cornrows, Ms. Rain's front desk assistant at "Each One, Teach One."

"Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" is tough to take yet enrapturing, unyieldingly disturbing yet inspiring in director Lee Daniels' point-of-view that a person's journey toward becoming a stronger person while bettering themselves is not out of reach or too late for anyone. As Clareece 'Precious' Jones comes to find, her future is one that is up in the air, to be determined, her ultimate fate prematurely decided upon but the time in between hers to make the most of. Precious learns this valuable lesson even as she must face her own mortality—something no 16-year-old should have to. By the end—nay, long before the end—the viewer has come to not only care about Precious, but to understand why she was given that nickname. "A lot of people love you," Ms. Rain tells Clareece during one of her darkest hours. "I love you." In that instant and beyond, we know what she means. For a motion picture dealing in such bleak, punishing, grimly provocative material, "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" is a rarefied beauty, an innately human story that offers inspiration without sap, fleeting hope without contrivance, ultimate redemption with sincerity.
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman