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Film In Focus: PRECIOUS


Oscar, meet Precious........the Academy Awards have just gotten their first blast of ghetto love with the rising tides surrounding the urban drama PRECIOUS: Based On A Novel By Sapphire by producer-turned-director Lee Daniels. The film, a major hit out of Sundance and screening as the Centerpiece Film this past weekend at the New York Film Festival, is getting some of the hottest reviews of the year and positioning its director, screenwriter, actors and techicians into the Oscar gold circle.

The title may be a bit ungainly and long, but that has to do with a previous conflict with another film with the title of PRECIOUS. For legal reasons, the producers needed to find a new title, so they included the sub-title of "Based On A Novel by Sapphire" to distinguish this PRECIOUS from any other. However, the film will undoubtedly be known by its single title from now on as it moves towards an inevitable stampede into awards season.

Oscar buzz is already centering on newcomer Gabourey ‘Gabby’ Sidibe, whose brave performance as the overweight teenager Precious Jones is one of the most electrifying debuts in years. She is a mountain of a girl who has found ways to cope with the shocking abuse inflicted on her by her parents and other kids. The character is always played with great humor and dignity, amidst harrowing circumstances that could cripple most of us.

The film is unashamedly of its time and place, with most of the characters speaking in "ghetto speech" that even American audiences will need to be patient to fully understand (how the film will do internationally is also dependent on this language barrier). But aside from the strong use of vernacular and slang, the film's human elements are so strong that it should transcend the traditional barrier that films about black people have had at the international box office. The presence of famous names like Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey as supporting players in the cast will also help both in the United States and overseas.

The director Lee Daniels, who has been a successful producer with such films as MONSTER'S BALL, takes us into the hell that is Precious’ home life, including uncomfortable flashbacks to years of sexual abuse at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend and scenes of shocking physical and verbal abuse by her mother. The mother is played by the comedienne Mo’Nique, whose performance is receiving its own share of Oscar buzz.

Precious escapes into a fantasy world when things get too tough, imagining herself a model or singing star performing to huge crowds or walking the red carpet. Her salvation comes when she attends an alternative school where she finds a mentor who teaches literacy to a class of desperate girls. There, she learns how to read, write and express herself. When she becomes pregnant, she decides to keep the baby and eventually (and triumphantly) leaves her mother's house.  

The ending is rousing and it will not be surprisiing to see audiences literally stand up and applaud, as they did at the screenings at the New York Film Festival. The film has already won Audience Awards at the Sundance and Toronto film festivals and is poised to become one of the important American indie films of the year.

Sandy Mandelberger, Film New York Editor


Comments (1)

Another review on Precious by Emly Monaco

The line for the press screening of Precious at San Sebastian film Festival started a half-hour before the film—it was definitely one of the must-sees of the festival, and after watching the film, I understand why.

The story of a teacher who changes the life of a student or a group of students is one that has been written again and again in Hollywood: we know the story, we know that the teacher, usually one working with underprivileged students, ends up taking as much out of it as the student and being touched by one in particular. It takes a lot for a film that I've seen in an earlier incarnation (or multiple earlier incarnations) to have an effect on me.

So even though Precious does have some of those elements, don't cast it off: it's hardcore and coarse and at some points difficult to watch, but it's worth it.

Precious Jones is a sixteen-year-old girl who is pregnant for the second time with her father's child. She lives in an abusive household with her mother, who is on welfare. She is severely overweight and is told countless times by her mother that she is useless.

And yet, Precious still has dreams: she dreams of having boys fall for her, of being the star of the show. Her dreams appear to the audience whenever she has a trial she cannot face: when we see, near the beginning of the movie, as her father rapes her (a disturbingly well-done scene that tells us just enough without being graphic). As the film progresses, the audience starts to wonder how Precious has even survived this long: she just seems to be at the most downtrodden she ever could be.

A teacher at her public school decides to send her to an alternative school, where she meets the teacher: Blu Rain, a woman who Precious will later be shocked to discover is a lesbian. In a classroom full of misfits, Precious finds her voice and is able to begin learning to read and write.

The story up until this point seems trite, like something we've seen before. If the movie were to end here, though, I still would have been impressed: Precious' problems are nowhere near as one-dimensional as so many we see in movies about misfits: she is not only pregnant, she is pregnant with her father's child; she is not only overweight, she is obese; she is not only abused, she is essentially her mothers servant. The film, however, does not stop here: Precious goes on to be even more tormented, becomes homeless, discovers that her father had AIDS when he raped her. Precious' hardships seem to never end, and yet, she continues to stay grounded and knows what is most important for her, and in the end, in a beautiful visual metaphor, learns to be OK with who she is instead of always dreaming of who she might like to be.

Near the end of the film, a creepily heart-warming speech from Precious' abusive mother gives the story even more dimension: the mother can no longer be the proverbial “bad guy,” for she has suffered herself.

In resuming this film on paper, however, no matter how much I explain it, I, and anyone who tries, does it a disservice. It is really because of the wonderful acting, the heart-wrenching visuals and the images of Precious' inner world and inner strength that make this film a great one. If you don't believe me, at least believe the viewer's poll: for the moment, Precious is in the lead.

- Emily Monaco

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Mandelberger Sandy
(International Media Resources)

The Ultimate Guide to the New York Film, Video and New Media Scene.

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