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Oscar-worthy performances save mediocre 'Precious'

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Posted: Friday, November 27, 2009 12:00 am

Now that the riffraff is safely behind us, we can kick into full awards season mode with a look at "Precious" (one of the early contenders for a few major Oscars) this week, followed by reviews of, at the very least, "The Fantastic Mr. Fox," "The Road," "Invictus" and "Avatar" as the year winds down.

2009 has certainly been uneven thus far, but overall I think it has been one of the strongest years in recent memory — and a great end-of-year smorgasbord of quality films could make it one for the books.

Just hearing a plot description, one may assume that "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' By Sapphire," is your average, dime-a-dozen example of ham-fisted, manipulative Oscar bait: Meet Clareese Precious Jones (she goes by her middle name), a morbidly obese 16-year-old black girl who is struggling to blossom under the most dire of circumstances.

At school, the borderline illiterate teen is incessantly harassed and assaulted by her peers. Her home life is significantly worse, with a sexually abusive, drug-addicted father, and an equally abusive mother who blames her daughter for all her problems in life and simmers with anger over the fact that Precious has "stolen her man."

Yet, under the loving tutelage of the dedicated staff of an alternative school where Precious is eventually sent, she is able to overcome these challenges and discover her own self-worth as a human being. Can't you just hear that music swelling?

Actually, no. As directed by Lee Daniels ("Shadowboxer," producer of "Monster's Ball"), "Precious" is anything but pedestrian.

And on some level, I appreciate that Daniels has taken a different approach to the material instead of delivering the same old Lifetime movie of the week we've seen too many times already.

This is certainly a "director's movie," filled with the kinds of artistic flourishes that are designed to take us inside Precious' world as completely as possible. In theory this is admirable, but unfortunately, Daniels bumbles the execution.

For instance, I can see why he thought it would be a good idea to present our heroine's fantasy sequences in quick, frenzied flashes, juxtaposed against equally stylized glimpses of whatever terrible treatment Precious is escaping from.

However, instead of being transcendent, these scenes simply feel choppy and derivative, and often straight-up disrupt the flow of the film. The same is true for most of Daniels' attempts at a stylistic breakthrough; it's like he's trying to be a neorealist Darren Aronofsky, but failing miserably. (And I'm still trying to figure out the quick cuts of cooking food interspliced with the rape scenes.)

It's all just too much. And, given that "Precious" is based on a novel and not a true-life story, I wonder if it was necessary to make Precious' life SO incredibly awful.

(Warning: Spoilers ahoy.)

Presenting a portrait of an obese, illiterate teen being continuously raped and impregnated by her biological father, and being verbally and physically abused by her mother, would have been adequately harrowing without adding in the excess baggage of the mother's own sexual abuse of her daughter (strongly implied in a single, bizarre scene that flies in the face of everything we've come to understand about these two characters), and the long-concealed fact that Precious is HIV-positive. This compendium of tragedies starts to seem a bit goofy after a while, and veers the film's intentions away from genuine catharsis and more toward emotional pornography.

Despite the depressing material, "Precious" often tries to come across as light-hearted (it was, after all, executive produced by Tyler Perry), but even these attempts are usually clumsy.

One thing that does work, though, is the collection of supporting players that populate Precious' alternative school. They're treated as more than bit parts but less than supporting characters, and frankly I would have preferred to see a movie about this charming, ragtag group of delinquents.

Standouts include two effortless, perfect little performances by Xosha Roquefort and Chyna Layne (as the ditzy girl and the Jamaican immigrant, respectively), who always inject a degree of life and vitality to the movie just when it seems like it's going to fully descend into a void of meaningless suffering.

So why am I ultimately recommending the film?

Easy: As Precious and her mother, Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe and Mo'Nique (respectively) deliver performances that can be called nothing less than remarkable.

Sidibe humanizes Precious in a way the screenplay itself is never able to, and she always maintains the faintest air of dignity even when she is being subjected to the most extraordinary abuses. It's a tough performance, and this newcomer deserves all the kudos she's getting.

This is doubly true for Mo'Nique, the fourth-tier comedienne who has come out of nowhere with an intense performance that absolutely towers over the film, even during the long stretches where she's absent from the screen.

It is my prediction that Mo'Nique will win a richly deserved Academy Award for her portrayal, if for no other reason than the final, devastating scene that demonstrates the human capacity for self-delusion perhaps more powerfully than anything I've ever seen.

These are four-star performances — too bad they're contained in a two-star film.

"Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' By Sapphire"

*** (out of four)

2009, Lee Daniels, U.S., R

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at



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