20 November 2009

At the movies: Precious.

Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe, in a remarkable and untraditional performance- like Summer Phoenix in Esther Kahn) is a sixteen year-old girl. She weighs over three hundred pounds, and she’s just become pregnant with her second child, both children the result of having been raped by her father. She lives with her physically and emotionally abusive mother Mary (Mo’Nique), and she is trying to find her way through alternative education systems as she is almost completely illiterate.

It’s 1987 New York, but it could be anywhere that there’s suffering. And Gabourey Sidibe may not look like the kind of girl we usually see in movies, but it could just as easily be your story.

After triumphing at Sundance back in January, both Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry came on to help promote awareness of the film. Based on Sapphire’s bestseller Push, Precious has since been on a snowball of success, winning audience awards and accolades left and right, creating intense discussions about the responsibilities of portraying black life onscreen between it adorers and detractors, and setting records for box office business during its limited five-screen release.

“It’s this year’s Slumdog Millionaire,” some are saying, like that's a compliment. “It’s the film to beat,” say others. "It's the most racist film since The Birth of A Nation," or something to that effect, says critic Armond White, who pretty much called Tina Turner a race traitor (read his collection of early work The Resistance if you think I'm kidding) back in the 90s. So opinions, as you can imagine, are divergent.

Here’s the thing about Precious that nobody is really saying- it’s bonkers. It is near-operatic in its vision of oppression and liberation, feeling like a Douglas Sirk film that’s been stuffed into a Vittorio de Sica set (a connection made explicit by one of director Daniels' setpieces), and it understands that when you’re dealing with big emotions, sometimes you have to walk a fine line with camp. That precariousness adds much to the film’s impact, as do the central performances from Sidibe and Mo’Nique (who is destined for much awards love).

Add in a supporting cast that feels like a demented version of The Love Boat and Director Lee Daniels’ unorthodox choices, and you have a film that is absolutely singular in every way imaginable. The first time I saw it, I was impressed with the acting but didn't really see much else there. Now that the film has had time to grow in our national dialogue, now I get it. Precious is whatever it has to be to provoke an impassioned response from the viewer, and in that, it is wildly successful.

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