This movie about an unloved teenage girl has been the darling of the festival circuit since its debut at Sundance last year and is currently generating considerable Oscar buzz. Precious, or Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, to give the film its jaw-breaking full title, certainly deserves the attention, but there’s a danger that some viewers coming late to the party may feel director Lee Daniels’ debut film has been oversold.
Set in late-1980s New York, Precious tells the grim and often harrowing story of a morbidly obese, illiterate 16-year-old girl who is enduring an existence of unremitting misery. Living in a squalid Harlem tenement with her vicious, drug-addicted mother, Claireece ‘Precious’ Jones already has one child by her absent father, a Down’s syndrome baby she calls Mongo, and she is currently expecting her second baby by him, a state of affairs that only provokes her mother to even more abuse.
Kicked out of school, she winds up on an alternative programme for problem students called Each One/Teach One. There, Precious encounters a bunch of feisty fellow pupils and an inspirational teacher, Ms Rain (played by Paula Patton), who encourages her to take the first steps towards independence.
The blows that rain down on Precious make the film, at times, almost unbearable to watch. Daniels does mitigate the misery a little, however, by letting us inside its heroine’s fantasy inner world in which she enjoys red-carpet celebrity and love.
In the real world, Precious gives nothing away. Her face is closed and inexpressive, seemingly an impassive mask, but newcomer Gabourey Sidibe (an astonishing performance) shows that we don’t need the fantasy sequences to reveal what Precious is feeling, conveying her character’s lifetime of hurt with blazing intensity.
Stand-up comedian Mo’Nique is equally impressive as Precious’s mother, while Mariah Carey, stripped of makeup, makes up for the cinematic travesty that was Glitter with an unfussy, resolutely unglamorous performance as the no-nonsense social worker in charge of Precious’s case.While admiring the film’s strengths, I felt that I’d been wrong-footed by Precious. Watching it at the London Film Festival last year, I had the impression that the film was the cinematic equivalent of those misery memoirs that dominated the bestseller lists not so long ago. The troubles inflicted on Precious were so extreme; surely the filmmakers could only be putting them on screen because they were based on a real person’s life.
As the film’s subtitle reveals, however, its source is a novel by New York writer Sapphire, who was inspired by the real lives she encountered in the 1980s while working as a social worker and teacher. And since the film first appeared, many viewers have responded to it passionately because of the way it has reflected their own experiences on screen.
Precious makes an interesting companion piece to another new movie about the rescuing of a downtrodden black teenager: The Blind Side, which stars Sandra Bullock as a wealthy white Southerner who adopts a homeless African-American boy. The two films couldn’t be more different, but placed in juxtaposition they offer a fascinating view of contemporary America’s two, bitterly conflicted sides.
The heartwarming Blind Side – which is based on a true story – speaks to conservative America, with its born-again Christian heroine offering a lifeline to someone who has been failed by every organ of the state. Liberal favourite Precious also features a protagonist who has fallen through the cracks in the system, but it is representatives of a series of institutions – Patton’s teacher, Lenny Kravitz’ sympathetic nurse and Mariah Carey’s social worker – who help to haul her out of the abyss.
So far, Precious has been the critical success and Blind Side the commercial one. When, as is likely, the two films go up against each other at the Oscars in March, it will be fascinating to see which way Hollywood votes.
On general release from 29th January.
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