Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

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A highlight of the Sundance Film Fest, Lee Daniels' "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," is an honest and surprisingly hopeful film about the incomparable human ability to grow and overcome insurmountable obstacles.  

A winner of multiple awards at the 2009 Sundance Film Fest and an Official Selection at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, the film played at the Un Certain Regard series, before opening theatrically by Lionsgate in early November in a platform mode.  "Precious" also plays Telluride and Toronto Film Fests.  

"Precious" arrived in Cannes with a solid critical cache, having won no less than three awards at Sundance, including the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award in the Dramatic Competition (an unusual combination).   It's also nice to report that Lee Daniels has made a quantum leap forward 

as a filmmaker, after making the disappointing picture "Shadowboxer" several years ago.
 
Among other distinctions, "Precious" confounds notions of what an “urban" or "black" film is, but at a time when American independent cinema is facing uphill battles commercially, the film reaffirms the power and valueof movies made outside mainstream Hollywood.
 
No matter how you look at it, at the center of the film is a powerfully raw, dramatic vivid story of a Harlem teenager who overcomes tremendous obstacles to discover her own worth, beauty and potential. 
 
Set in Harlem in 1987, the movie tell the story of Claireece "Precious" Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), an obese, 16-year-old African-American girl born into harsh poverty and dysfunctional family. Pregnant for the second time by her largely absent father, who has been violating her since childhood, Precious is forced to wait on her mother (Mo'Nique), an angry woman who abuses her emotionally as well as physically. 
 
At first, school offers no respite either, as it's a chaotic place to be. Precious has reached the ninth grade with good marks despite the shocking fact that she can neither read nor write—it's a big secret.
 
However, appearances can be deceptive and beneath Precious' impassive expression is hidden a curious, alert young woman with strong vision that life could be better, that there are always possibilities and alternatives. 
 
It's a tribute to Daniels' candid, decidedly unsentimental approach that his film becomes inspirational almost in spite of its story. Refusing to ask for pity (or sympathy) for Precious, the director goes for empathy and understanding.  
 
Threatened with expulsion, Precious is offered the chance to transfer to an alternative school called Each One/Teach One. Though she doesn't know the meaning of "alternative," her instincts tell her this is the only real chance for change in her life. It's in the literacy workshop taught by the patient Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), that Precious embarks a journey that leads her from pain and powerlessness to self-respect and self-determination.
 
With her father absent, Precious' daily life is dominated by her mother, a recluse living on welfare who beats Precious out.  In the end, it's school teachers and social workers help Precious to move forward, inspiring her to write out her story as a way of changing her life.
 
The voice of Precious, who describes her life in direct, unguarded (often humorous) language, which evolves over the course of the narrative, resonates from the very first sentence. Precious often misspells the words she is learning to write, but her thoughts and emotions are piercingly clear, including her pain, anger, yearning for love, feelings of doubt and worthlessness, excitement at new discoveries, and finally, a growing sense of confidence, pride and strength. 
 
The narrative dwells on some taboo issues, in and out the black community, such as Precious' fantasies about being white, and a white model at that; that's the image she sees in her bedroom mirror.  
 
Despite the humanistic and universal elements of the tale, Daniels and his writers don't idealize Precious or elevate her to a mythic role model. Precious is seen engaging in petty crime, stealing files from a social worker's office and food from a fast food store. Nor do they try to explain or apologize for their protagonist's large size, which could be seen as defense mechanism, reaction to a horrible life, or a form of rebellion.
 
The last reel of "Precious" is particularly intense, forcing the estranged mother and rebellious daughter to confront each other head-on. 
 
Daniels, better known as the producer of "Monsters Ball," for which Halle Berry won the 2002 Actress Oscar, is good with his troupe. Indeed, the acting of the entire ensemble is uniformly good.  
 
Singer Lenny Kravitz makes an honorable appearance as John, the understanding male nurse, Mariah Carey is terrific as the firm yet sensitive social worker, who values and understands the power of the human spirit when guided in the right direction.
 
But, ultimately, the film belongs to the two central women. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe lends "Precious" such openness and vulnerability that occasionally it feels we are watching a cinema verite documentary, not a fictional feature. 
 
As her monstrous mother, Mo'Nique, mostly known for stand-up acts campy comedies, is a revelation, turning in a devastating performance showing the transformation of a bitter woman from an abusive mother to a jealous and shattered woman who is incapable of handling reality.
 
Cast:
 
Gabourey 'Gabby' Sidibe
Mo'Nique
Paula Patton
Sherri Shepherd
Lenny Kravitz
 
Credits
 
Lionsgate Release
Director: Lee Daniels
Screenwriter: Damien Paul
Producers: Lisa Cortes and Tom Heller
 
MPAA: The version that I saw was unrated: the film features graphic scenes of domestic violence and sexual abuse, and foul language.
 
Running time: 105 Minutes.