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IN SHORT: One of the Best of the Year. [Rated R for Child Abuse including Sexual Assault, and Pervasive Language. 109 minutes]
Allow us a paragraph to write about "hype" aka "buzz" or "word on the street" or "the inside line" or the now overused "whatever." We've been reviewing films for fifteen or so years now. We've seen great hype come and go, usually blowing up in a film's face within a week of opening. Heat. and The Blair Witch Project come immediately to mind (and there will be at least a dozen or so screaming diss-mails in my inbox in a day or two maintaining that that the hype was legit and that the films should rightfully rank among the top two movies ever made. Any time there is tsunami like advance hype blasting out of the film festival circuit we make note on a mental post-it and then do our best to avoid paying attention to any thing that may cross our desk about whatever film is being hyped. In the case of Precious, the hype is all about newbie actress Gabourney Sidibe and the film is carried on the shoulders of an endorsement from Oprah Winfrey herself. It's almost unfair to put all that kind of pressure on an actor's performance. By the time we see the final edit, the actor is long finished with the work and the editors and director have tweaked said performance(s) individually and collectively as best they can. In the case of Precious, though, we did find our brain making notes along the lines iof "the performance is good but the script is written simply enough that any novice could handle what is asked of [her]. Assuming that the film was shot in chronological sequence [just a guess] we get to watch an actor learn how to act and, ultimately, deliver a flat-out, hands-down, terrific performance.
Precious, the film, had a lot more to overcome than any presumptive evaluation of a film not yet seen by us. We know from tracking the readership of reviews of films that we heartily recommend you see vs. what you actually do that, when it comes to films whose cast is primariy African-American, white audiences usually stay the heck away. Having Oprah's endorsement helped The Color Purple (as did having one Steven Spielberg as a director on the film) and it may help this one but, if you pay no attention to Ms. Winfrey you may find yourself thinking, as we did in the opening minutes of Precious, that "uh oh, I'm in the wrong theater." Ignore the ghetto setting. Ignore the color of the cast. Ignore the torrent of four letter words. Ignore the physical stereotypes and (literal) physical abuse. In short, ignore everything that may have a tendency to push your buttons and hang on tight. There is no "a-ha!" moment that will whack you across the back of the head as it pulls you in but, trust us, it will happen and you'll be eyebrow deep in to the film before you realize it.
Claireece Jones aka "Precious" (Gabourney Sidibe) is a morbidly obese, sixteen year old mother of two, It is sad to report that her first child is named "mongoloid" because it is. That there is a second "normal" child speaks volumes about her upbringing until the story fleshes out the details: Precious cooks and cleans and otherwise cares for a verbally abusive mother Mary (Mo'Nique). Mary's temperament is such that she would probably be beating on her kidlet if she weren't too drunk and/or too fat to get out of her comfy chair. Said beatings are administered by her father, when he chooses to appear in the household. Even worse, Precious' father chooses the younger (and more sober) of the women present to fulfill his sexual needs.
You readers are smart enough to figure out what that means.
No it is not a pretty life. To top it all off, our heroine is entering the ninth grade of school with high grades on her report cards but, in reality, she is illiterate. Once someone at the school pays attention, she is threatened with expulsion unless she takes a transfer to an "alternative" school program nicknamed Each One Teach One. There, under the guidance of "literacy teacher" Mrs. Rains (Paula Patton) and a social worker, Ms. Weiss (Mariah Carey), the emotionally supressed teen becomes a person. That means she learns to stand up for herself -- and if any of you assume that means she takes a gun to the heads of her parents, being black and in the ghetto and all, no. Precious goes a different route and it is one that is as emotionally liberating for her as it is for the audience watching it happen.
Granted, we walked into our screening feeling a wee bit gun shy from all the advance buzz about newcomer Sidibe's performance. We sat through the first half hour or so thinking, "well, this is written so that anyone could do it." Before we knew it, we were sucked in good. By the time the film was done, you could put us down on the list of raving fools, too.
We apologize for gushing. If we were to dissect the film Precious piece by piece, there are probably a lot of ways we could take it apart. We're not here to analyze like a film student -- even though we almost slipped up a paragraph back. We're here to see if a film delivers the emotional wallop to its audience that the really good ones should, regardless of format or genre. Precious delivers, both barrels blasting. There is humor in the script that comes out at the most unexpected places but, more important, by the time all is said and done, we the audience were rooting for this girl to stand up and take charge of herself and her life. There's a long way to go until she gets there, but you'll have to discover that for yourself.
Most of the films we see at this time of the year (as Oscar buzz starts ramping up) are pretentious and painful to sit through. It is a very pleasant joy to be surprised by a film worthy of all of the buzz.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Precious, he would have paid . . .
Added to our list of the films under consideration as the Best Film of the Year is Precious. Because it is.
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