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Cinema Sunday (12/13/09) December 13, 2009

Posted by monty in movies.
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The highest praise I can bestow on Lee Daniels’ amazing and heartbreaking film Precious is that it made me take seriously as artists both Mo’Nique and Mariah Carey.  A movie that doesn’t have a plot as much as it simply traces the living hell of its title character, Precious could have gone wrong in any number of ways.  It could have been a tedious slog through an urban Dante’s Inferno – a way for guilty white people to get a glimpse of inner-city strife.  On the other hand, the movie could have come across as the phoniest of bolognas.  In an effort to make the brutality of Precious’ life palatable for mainstream audiences, director Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher could have downplayed the violence and turned it into a sort of Wayans-esque depiction of squalor.  Against all odds, though, Daniels has made a movie that’s brutal, uncomprising, and ultimately uplifting.

A lion’s share of the credit has to go to the cast, which is uniformly excellent.  Gabby Sidibe plays Clarice “Precious” Jones, an obese, sixteen-year-old 8th grader who was serially raped by her father.  These attacks have given her one child already (a daughter with Down’s Syndrome), and as the movie opens, Precious discovers she’s pregnant with a second.  Comedian Mo’Nique plays Precious’ mother, Mary, a woman who only leaves the apartment to play the lottery, and spends the rest of the time in front of the TV.  After Precious is expelled from school, she is allowed to attend an alternative school.  Here she meets Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), the teacher who makes all of her students write regularly, and in doing so, take control of the narrative of their lives.

These three actors are amazing, but most of the accolades are justifiably going to the two main characters. As Precious, Sidibe seethes quietly, and through her we see how living in a domestic war zone affects a child.  She’s been taught – by her mother who beats her and verbally abuses her, her father who rapes her, the school which neglects her – that she means nothing, that she is nothing, and this is personified in the slump of Precious’ shoulders, in the way she mumbles and keeps her eyes downcast, in her refusal to share anything about herself at the first class in her new school.  The movie is personal, to be sure, but it’s also a scathing indictment of the system that has allowed Precious to become this way.

And then there’s Mo’Nique.  Playing one of the most thoroughly despicable characters in film history, the danger here is that Mary would become a one-note villain – just a variation on the mustache-twirling bad guy from the silent film era.  There are two absolutely virtuoso scenes where we see the depth of the performance, as well as the metaphorical cancer at the center of Mary’s personality.  In the first, a social worker comes to the apartment earlier than expected to see if Mary is still eligible for benefits.  Wearing a terrible wig and holding Precious’ daughter to complete the tranquil domestic scene, Mary comes across as the doting, attentive mother and grandmother.  When the social worker isn’t looking, however, Mary shoots murderous glances at Precious and is barely able to contain her rage at the squirming child on her lap.  It’s a high-wire act that’s thrilling to watch.  The second scene comes late in the movie, as Mary is interviewed by a second social worker (played by a de-glammed and frankly astounding Mariah Carey, hereby forgiven for Glitter).  In the course of the interview, Mary admits how Precious’ father began sexually abusing his daughter, why she allowed it to happen, and why she ultimately blames it on Precious.  It’s disgusting and infuriating, but it’s also heartbreaking to see how Mary is a victim of the same system that has so beaten down her daughter.  All the awards talk focusing on Mo’Nique’s performance is entirely justified.  If the Academy knows anything about acting at all, she’ll both be nominated and win in a landslide.

As I said at the top, while the movie is certainly harsh and terrifying, it’s also optimistic.  This optimism comes in the form of Ms. Rain, Precious’ teacher.  While Precious isn’t an education movie in the mold of Stand and Deliver or Dangerous Minds, it does present the thesis that education is one of the best ways for disadvantaged children to break free of the system that has held them down.  As Precious becomes more comfortable with both Ms. Rain and her peers, she becomes an avid writer, and this gives her hope that she can earn her GED and go to college.  And this is where the movie becomes more than just a tour of an inner-city hell.  Ms. Rain’s compassion, as well as her unrelenting determination that Precious not give up on herself, reminds us – especially those of us in education – that we have to help empower those less fortunate than we are.  Precious is one of the best movies of the year because it says, simply, this is what’s wrong with our system, but here’s how we fix it.


Current listening:

Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians – Respect (1993)



1. Amanda - December 13, 2009

The book is amazing as well. I was worried when I heard they were making it into a movie but I am glad that you think it is good.

rcm - December 13, 2009

I’m interested to read the book now. Sections of the movie were shot in a really interesting way, and I’d like to know if that was a directorial thing or if it was just reflecting the novel.

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