Film Soars With Terrible Beauty Of Sad Truth

'Precious' **** ( Four Stars)

November 20, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

At the Baltimore premiere of "Precious," Jacqueline Robarge, the founder of Power Inside, a support group for women in jail or at risk outside, and Adam Rosenberg, executive director of Baltimore Child Abuse Center, declared that the domestic atrocities depicted in the film occur every day - and that facing them squarely provides hope as well as release.

This movie proves them right. In the end, it's cathartic and exhilarating.

Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe is an emotional lodestone as Precious, an obese teenager whose life is filled with horror. Her ferociously selfish mother, Mary (Mo'Nique), stood by as Precious was violated regularly by her father. Mary has compounded the abuse, treating Precious as her house slave, trained to respond to her slightest whim and every appetite. Precious' first child born of incest, a Down syndrome girl saddled with the cruel name "Mongo," actually lives with Precious' ineffectual grandmother. But Mongo has become a tool for Mary's drive to wring the most money possible from welfare. Precious, who is 16 and pregnant again, will do anything to prevent a similar fate for her new baby.

What makes the movie so involving, despite its dire content, is the way the director, Lee Daniels, and his screenwriter, Geoffrey Fletcher, walk us into Precious' creative sensibility. From the credits scrawled in Precious' own illiterate lingo to the final scrap of I-will-survive first-person narration, the filmmakers craft a movie that reflects the young woman's tortured, resilient spirit as well as her heart and mind.

Daniels' movie is richer and more hopeful than its source, the novel "Push" by Sapphire. "Push" is raw, hard-core; "Precious" is tender, unflinching. It's about the survival of someone many would consider totally unfit. It pushes for a social Darwinism that acknowledges the evolution of the soul.

Daniels streaks the film with comedy that's unexpected because it is so unapologetically real. In one startling episode, Precious, nervous and starving before her first day at an alternative school, finds a way to steal a fried-chicken breakfast.

Precious' fantasies of escape are what bring the film its aura of transcendence and also take viewers to another world. "I want to be on one of those BET videos," she tells us, right off the bat. Daniels has the tragicomic killer instinct to depict her romantic illusions all-out. His rushes of outlandish imagery express the heroine's panic when confronted with living nightmares, including learning that her father-rapist died of AIDS.

"Precious" is a work of guttural poetry, not a clinical case study. Daniels and his cinematographer, Andrew Dunn, turn Harlem into a Gothic cityscape, Mary's home into a haunted house, and the alternative-school classroom of a gifted teacher, Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), into an existential decompression chamber.

The movie soars on the cast's brilliance at transforming the characters from monsters and victims into repositories of pride and battlers for turf. Sidibe and Mo'Nique pull surprises out of the folds of their skin. Mo'Nique's combinations of malice and inertia are terrifying. She creates a witches' brew of potent manipulations. You never doubt that she stays inside her daughter's head even when she's out of sight. Sidibe taps into preconscious feelings. She goes beyond poignancy, into a realm of spectral emotion, when she realizes that she has known love only in perverted forms.

Patton is superb; she makes professional devotion a thing of beauty. But Mariah Carey , stripped of every shred of glamour, is astounding as the social worker assigned to Precious' case.

Of course, Precious needs what only Patton's Rain can give her: an education that contains an open view of the world. But Carey shows the catalytic strength of a social worker who completely honors her profession. She imbues Weiss with such a solid sense of who she is and such a firm ethical core that she becomes the perfect referee for the ultimate showdown between Precious and Mary. "You allowed him to hurt her! You did," says Weiss, whose explosion elicits even more troubling revelations from Mo'Nique's out-of-control Mary: "But those things she told you I did to her? Who else was going to love me?"

"Precious" spills over with the harsh revelations and occasional beauties of the naked truth.

MPAA rating: R for child abuse, including sexual assault, and pervasive language

Cast: Gabourey 'Gabby' Sidibe (Precious), Mo'Nique (Mary), Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), Mariah Carey (Mrs. Weiss)

Credits: A Lionsgate release. Directed by Lee Daniels. Running time: 1:50

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