In Theaters: Precious
There were women in the screening I attended for Precious, Lee Daniels's erratic, commanding look at the life of an abused teenager living in 1987 Harlem, who could not keep their shit together. Occasional gasps and a steady baseline of sniffles gave way to outright weeping and then, at one critical juncture, a keening moan that did not let up until the credits rolled. My annoyance with the moaner (really to heavens, lady) mirrored that with a film that, in places, seems dead set on eliciting just such an overblown response, even at the risk of disrupting an otherwise assured, engrossing film. The only thing that will yank you out of a film faster than an apparent appendicitis attack in the row behind you is the kind of relentless emotional grubbing that incites it.
And so I suspect that even without the collective nervous breakdown happening around me, my response would have held steady at muted admiration occasionally punctured by aesthetic dismay. Daniels, a former casting director whose first film was the outré assassin number Shadowboxer, chose to remain almost piously faithful to his source material, the novel Push, written by Sapphire (indeed, the film's subtitle -- Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire -- suggests a kind of unnecessary genuflection). The novel, which is narrated by 16-year-old Claireece "Precious" Jones, is written in the makeshift dialect of a teenager whom we learn has made it to high school without learning to read or write. The film's opening titles reflect this phonetic patois, but Precious's narration (played by Gabourey Sidibe) is more pronounced: her body, swaddled by obesity, is enormous and yet indistinct, and her large, recessive face is pulled into a tight knot of deflective rage, and yet Precious's voice is clear, strong, and infused with the flatly funny inflection of a born survivor. "The other day I felt stupid," she says. "But you know what? Fuck that day."
The opening scene finds Precious happily lodged in the back of a classroom, where her fantasizing about her teacher (who has misspelled the word "requirments" on the chalkboard, a small harbinger of Precious's badly inverted world) is interrupted by a call to the principal's office. Precious is being expelled from school because she is pregnant for the second time; she gets a curt suggestion about an alternative school and is written off by the education system that failed her. At home is the specter of mother Mary (Mo'Nique), a housebound seether who seems determined that Precious leave childhood as damaged and hopeless as she is. Perhaps the sickest room in Mary's mansion of hatred is the one that houses her jealousy of her daughter; the child Precious is carrying (and the first one she bore) is the product of a rape at the hands of her father, Mary's boyfriend. Daniels decides to depict a rape scene, complete with sick-making dialogue ("You even better than your mother"), one of several examples of fidelity to a fault to his source material. The question of whether to bring the father into the story or not is a tricky one, but resolving it with a single appearance as a glistening, belt-unbuckling torso is not the answer.
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