January 31, 2010

How Precious

I once worked with a patient who was a retired social worker. The things she had seen could drive one to despair. She told me stories of forcibly taking children away from their abusive parents' homes. One time, she had to run down a few flights of stairs, almost injuring the child and herself. From the moment I saw the trailer for Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, I was hooked. But viewer be warned, this story of a physically and sexually abused overweight teenager named Claireece "Precious" Jones, the film is distressing, and unrelentingly so. In a stunning debut, Gabourey Sidibe puts on an impassive and noble mien with flashes of wit and spirit in the face of a horrific existence. Her rich fantasy world enables her to cope and escape from her brutal life. Growing up in '80s Harlem, her colorful outfits are a testament to her refusal to let her inner light be extinguished. (Watch out for a meaningful scene almost at the end when she passes on one of her scarves to someone else.) Expelled from school because of her second pregnancy, she starts going to an alternative school Each One, Teach One against her mother's wishes. Led by an imperturbable teacher Blu Rain (Paula Patton) and surrounded by a friendly group of loving misfits, Precious not only learns to read and write, but finds her voice, strength and reconnects with her soul.

Director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher take an unflinching look at social issues plaguing the black community, from baby daddies, young girls wanting to be white or having a light-skinned boyfriend, the "white man keeps us down" mentality, the welfare system, illiteracy, a flawed school system, even deep fried food and McDonald's. They also tackle incest, emotional and physical abuse, the oppression of women. Just when you think the images couldn't get any more graphic, they take you over the edge, daring you to look away. What was surprising was the humor in the script. I watched a sold-out show with a mostly Caucasian audience, with two black women plus me, the token Asian. I could sense the unease of the white people, as if they were afraid to laugh. But the movie is thankfully funny on various occasions.

The movie is powered by honest, realistic performances of the supporting cast, including Lenny Kravitz as kind Nurse John and Sherri Shepherd (Cornrows), a receptionist at Each One, Teach One, and a surprisingly good turn by Mariah Carey as a social worker. But aside from Gabby Sidibe, it is Mo'nique's Mary that deserves recognition. It's awfully brave of her to take on the role. Known for her comedy, her terrifying portrayal of the mother was most unnerving. Some people might say the character is over-the-top evil, but truth is always stranger than fiction. Just for the sequence where the social worker pays them a home visit, and at the end where she pathetically justifies her actions, I say give her the Oscar, Academy!

The movie is not all doom and gloom, and it's certainly not for everyone. It deserves every accolade it has received. It is a tale of survival, recognizing your potential, and rebirth. It felt unfinished by the time it faded to black, but I think the filmmakers did the right thing: let the viewers come up with different, probably hopeful scenarios for Precious and her family. She was halfway between her old, and her new life. Even though I felt like I had been kicked in the gut after I saw the movie (and knowing that if I had been watching it alone at home, I'd have been a big bawling mess), you know you've just been through a unique movie-going experience when you leave wanting to be a better person. There's a scene where Precious said people will go into a tunnel so dark that they have to light their own way. And when they come out, they're still shining, not just for themselves but for everyone else around them. Why can't we all be that kind of people?

(photo from filmofilia)

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