Monday, February 8, 2010


As you have no doubt heard, "Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire" (10) tells the wrenching story of a morbidly obese, illiterate African-American teenager barely surviving abject poverty and unthinkable abuse at the hands of both her parents. Though I teared up every time I saw the preview for this film and knew I'd have to see it, I didn't hold out much hope that it would rise above the typical Hollywood shortcuts and clumsy exposition.

No way, then, did I expect to leave the theater so utterly moved, and so enriched. I saw the film at Portland's Lloyd Mall, in a very diverse audience of mostly older upper-middle-class whites and mostly younger African Americans, and the two hours we spent together in this movie's thrall were strangely unifying; nearly everyone sat in stunned silence with me as the credits rolled and waves of grief and admiration and amazement washed over us. Of the Oscar-nominated films, it's my pick to win best picture.

I don't have a clue how second-time director Lee Daniels figured out how to tell this kind of truth. The reality is so harsh that one can scarce imagine that audiences will have the temerity to sit still for it. Many of those connected with the film--producers Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, comedian and actress Mo'nique (fearless in the role of the Precious's abusive mother, Mary), and Daniels himself--were themselves abused as children, so they understand that experience from the inside out. But understanding it and depicting it are two different things.

The truth they manage to convey is specific, unrelenting, and unendurable. Sixteen-year-old Clareece Jones is crassly nicknamed "Precious," though everyone treats her as worthless and she knows it. Stalled in the eighth grade and functionally illiterate, she is invisible in plain sight, enormous but ignored except for the occasional taunt by a neighborhood kid. She speaks rarely and only in a congested mumble, as though she is buried in those mountains of flesh, and returns each night to a squalid apartment that she shares with a mother who hurls insults, orders, and the occasional frying pan at her. She is pregnant with her second child by her drug-addict father, who is otherwise mostly absent; the first, a girl with Down's Syndrome who is cruelly named "Mongo," lives with a grandmother who brings her by only as a necessary prop for visits from a welfare worker.

In crumbling prose, Precious narrates her inner life, including glittery, TV-addict fantasies where she wears ball gowns and has a "light-skinned boyfriend" and "good hair." A thin blonde white girl looks back at her in the mirror. She is someone people see but don't see, "her massive body at once a prison and a hiding place" (A.O.Scott, NY Times)--yet glimmers of a fighting spirit flicker. "The other day I cried," she recounts at one point. "But you know what? F--- that day."

Her second pregnancy gets her kicked out of the eighth grade, but a defeated guidance counselor hangs in there long enough to refer her to an alternative school for pregnant and parenting teens. The fact that Precious follows up on the referral indicates another flicker of unaccountable self-regard, a small seed of potential that finally can be nurtured by a teacher, Ms. Rain, who actually sees her and doesn't look away.

That first day, Ms. Rain pushes her to read a page from a children's book, and confirms that Precious can barely sound out the simplest words. "It all looks the same to me," she says. It's a perfect metaphor for her neglected soul, her utter inability to articulate a point of view. The rest of the film is devoted to her painstaking climb out of the rubble to form an identity, fueled by genuine caring and by the simple instruction that she write, and keep writing, every day. She acquires the ability to assert herself, along with the ability to name her experience, until she can actually cry out that all "love" has done for her is to beat her, rape her, and make her feel worthless. It's hopeful, but doesn't spare you the arduousness of the struggle that lies before her.

There are some remarkable performances here. The task of bringing Precious to life is no small feat, because she is so blank most of the time and yet has such a colorful, TV-dream-fueled inner life; newcomer Gabourey Sidibe captures her blankness yet seizes your attention so that you don't look away in the way that most people naturally would in Precious's actual experience. Paula Patton is quietly effective as Ms. Rain, and the scenes with Precious and her classmates avoid the treacly over-simplification of so many stories of classroom triumph, showing the distance these girls must come and how completely they have acclimated to chaos and violence. Mariah Carey is unexpectedly convincing as a social worker who is in way over her head. Most remarkably, Mo'nique pulls off a miracle in her portrayal of Mary, brutal, self-pitying, and malevolent. It's nearly impossible to depict a person this evil without making her into a cartoon, but her Mary is complete, true, believable, and complex.

Daniels manages to convey a lot without explaining it directly: the failures of the education system; the ineffectual efforts of the welfare system to help people while holding them accountable; the complexities of the resulting cycle of dependence; and the intractable, unrelenting nature of family violence, particularly in a culture that bears the scars of slavery. As Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly observed, "Mary is raging and defeated, a woman who treats Precious as a slave--* * * these two are living out patterns of cruelty that go back for generations." Daniels tells this story so well that the film earns the payoff of a devastating final scene between Mary, Precious, and Mariah Carey's well-intentioned but misguided social worker in which Mary's true character is utterly revealed. Never has this type of abuse been so truthfully deconstructed.

Ms. Rain asks the girls in class, "What does it mean when the author describes the protagonist's circumstances as unrelenting?" The film asks that question too, yet somehow manages to avoid shortcuts that would turn Precious and Mary into stereotypes. The hope that emerges, then, is earned, and yet also challenging. It's a painful journey, work to sit through, but it will change you. This story deserves the attention it demands.

As Precious begins to acquire an identity, she begins to glimpse signs that Ms. Rain has her own sadness, her own struggle. She muses that "some folks has a lot of things around them that shines for other peoples. I think that maybe some of them was in tunnels. And in that tunnel, the only light they had, was inside of them. And then long after they escape that tunnel, they still be shining for everybody else." Those of you who know me best might understand how profoundly that struck me; we who have managed to rise out of unimaginable darkness know that, as scripture says, "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free." This film captures how high those stakes actually are, because the truth can just as easily kill you--but what doesn't might actually set you free.

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