Currently a frontrunner for Best Picture, the ridiculously over-titled Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, is one of the most brutal movies I've ever sat through. It's also one of the most satisfying films of the year.
Precious is about an obese 16-year girl named Precious (played by first-time actress Gabourey Sidibe) who is good at math but doesn't know how to read or write. She's pregnant with her second child, conceived through rape, and is verbally and physically abused by her welfare-sucking mother, played by Mo'Nique. When Precious gets transferred to an alternative school dedicated to teaching urban youth how to read and write, however, she finds inspiration in her caring teacher, Ms. Rain (Paula Patton). Mariah Carey also stars.
For a quite a while, the movie is about as bleak as they come. Director Lee Daniels immerses the audience in the hell that Precious lives through like a father who tosses his infant son into water to teach him how to swim. Just when you think things can't get worse, Daniels, assisted by the screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher (and of course the novel by Sapphire), hits you with another blow. If something bad can happen, it will happen to the title character, and you will feel it right along with her.
This is the magic of Precious. It is painful, and you feel the pain. Daniels strings you along on this emotional disaster, breaking you down until you have nothing left to give. But just when you're going to pull out your car keys to slit your own wrists, the story turns a corner and becomes one of the most unlikely underdog stories in recent memory. The film is depressing, but ultimately things get better, and in this message - that no matter how bad things are, they can always turn in your favor - Precious thrives.
Well-written and craftily directed, the movie also boasts some of the finest performances of the year. Sidibe is perfect in the lead, delivering a nuanced performance that at first is standoffish and slowly more inviting as the story progresses. It's tough for any actor to take on a role like this, but Sidibe handles it like a pro. An Oscar nomination is not out of the question.
Even more impressive is Mo'Nique, who managed to change my perception of her in a matter of minutes. Her supporting turn is one of the most sadistic performances ever put to film, and yet it never feels over-the-top or melodramatic. She dominates every scene she's in, and I'll be shocked if she doesn't see a nomination come her way.
Carey is also surprisingly good, as is Patton.
Precious has few flaws, if any. The movie is mesmerizing, even if it's hard to watch. Ultimately, its fate at the Oscars will come down to how much brutality Academy voters can take in one sitting; it may be the frontrunner now, but films like this rarely win. Nevertheless, it is one of the best movies of 2009, if not the best.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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