CHICAGO – The issue of gender identity, especially for those who are born with a vagueness as to what to call themselves between/beyond boy and girl, has come front and center in the U.S., both with the legalization of gay marriage and the callous repudiation of identity by trying to pass laws dismissing it (the North Carolina “bathroom” laws). The performance companies of The Living Canvas and Nothing Without a Company is currently staging “[Trans]formation,” which presents gender identity art by six performers, who perform most of the play in the nude.
Gabourey Sidibe Shines in Inspirational True Story of ‘Precious’
CHICAGO – The final scene of Lee Daniels’ “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” ends with a dedication that the film is for “precious girls everywhere”. The words seem likely to resonate with the legions of fans of this tragic semi-true story (based on the girls that the author met while teaching in NYC) - women and men who can identify with rising above abuse, poverty, addiction, or whatever seemingly insurmountable odds speak most personally to them.
Daniels has made a bleak, brutal, depressing urban drama that will surely be the “feel-bad, feel-good” movie of the year, a well-made film that is so dark that it can be hard to watch but that is designed to illustrate the fact that the human power to overcome adversity is stronger than the instinct to shrivel and die.
Precious (Gabourey Sidibe, left) and Ms. Rain (Paula Patton, right) in Precious: Based On The Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire.
Photo credit: Anne Marie Fox/Lionsgate
Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is a stolid, overweight, somber, friendless teenager who has lived through an absolute nightmare since the day she was born. She is regularly abused by her mother (Mo’Nique) and is recently pregnant with her second child, both offspring the product of continuous rape by her own father since she was only an infant.
Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
Photo credit: Lionsgate
After her second pregnancy is discovered, Precious is shuttled off to an alternate education program for young women who have shown academic potential and she starts to discover that there are people in the world willing to help her. The most important are a teacher named Ms. Rain (Paula Patton) and a welfare worker played by Mariah Carey, but she also makes friends in her class and even opens up to a cute nurse played by Lenny Kravitz. The walls between the fantasy world that Precious has constructed to escape the pain of her everyday life start to come down as she is lifted by others towards a chance at a normal life.
A lot of “Precious” plays like an urban horror movie. Mo’Nique’s unbearably evil mother could give any villain from an actual genre film of the last few years a run for their money, but the story of Precious is true and it’s the handling of the stark realism of the piece that works best. Where other filmmakers would have sugar-coated the darker elements of this semi-true story, Daniels arguably pushes the horror of the life of Claireece Jones too far in the other direction. It feels like he gives Mo’Nique one “evil mother speech” too many, pushing her character into more of a “Mommie Dearest” vein than she should be and the film plays about 15 minutes longer than it needs to. Repetition has a way of draining a story of its power, even an inspirational one like “Precious”.
But most of the power remains due to a stellar ensemble. At the forefront, Sidibe is strikingly good, a sure lock for an Oscar nomination. She understands that the power of this character is not in the melodramatic speeches of the final act but the quiet, confused moments that lead to them. The viewer literally watches Precious come out of her shell with each positive encounter and it’s a completely genuine performance that helps off-set the more flashy elements of the film like the musical fantasy numbers and the unusual, eye-catching supporting cast.
As for the alternate casting of the ensemble, not only are they all effective in their roles, particularly Mo’Nique and Carey, but one could argue that choosing unusual actors and actresses for the smaller parts is thematically relevant to a story about not judging a book by its cover. There is a girl like Precious on every block in every city, a woman who may be seen by classmates or peers as stupid or confused but hides a back story that you can’t even imagine.
The story of Precious is far-too-common. Physical and sexual abuse takes a devastating toll on the youth of the world on a daily basis. The inherent dramatic power of the story of a survivor is resonant enough to speak to precious girls everywhere but it’s how well-told that story is in Lee Daniels’ film that allows it to speak to all viewers, precious girls or not.