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    Gabby Sidibe in Precious. in Precious
    Gabby Sidibe in "Precious."

    Girl in the hood

    "Precious," about a teenage mother growing up in the worst extremes of poverty and abuse, is a feelbad movie — with just the tiniest amount of feelgood worked in.


    (Originally reviewed at the New York Film Festival in October 2009.)

    "Precious" could so easily have been the bad movie I feared it would be. But it isn't.

    Full title: Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire.
    Directed by: Lee Daniels.
    Written by: Geoffrey Fletcher.
    Adapted from the novel "Push" by: Sapphire.
    Cast: Gabourey 'Gabby' Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, Sherri Shepherd, Nealla Gordon, Stephanie Andujar, Amina Robinson, Chyna Layne, Xosha Roquemore, Angelic Zambrana, Nia Fraser.
    Cinematography: Andrew Dunn.
    Edited by: Joe Klotz.

    Related links: Official site
    Walter Reade Theater
    Lincoln Center, 65th St. between Broadway and Amsterdam
    (212) 875-5600

    New York Film Festival, 2009
    • Overview
    • Antichrist
    • The Art of the Steal
    • Broken Embraces
      • Police, Adjective
    • Precious
    • Wild Grass
    If there's one thing movie critics hate, it's a cliché — because we're far too sophisticated to fall for a cliché's simple emotional manipulations, and we're compelled to let the world know it whenever possible. So what I expected out of "Precious" was either:

    1. The uplifting story of one hero teacher who liberates the oppressed ghetto children.

    2. The story of an unattractive girl who learns to love herself because she's special just the way she is.

    So here's what's really good about "Precious": Although it has hints of both of these (the movie's web site is even called ""), very little is idealized and the story is not wrapped up in a feelgood package. The question in my mind after seeing it was, how did they tell this story without drowning in a sea of maudlin?

    Gabby Sidibe and Mo'Nique in Precious. in Precious  
    Gabby Sidibe and Mo'Nique in "Precious."
    "Precious" is the nickname of a 300-pound black teenager growing up in Harlem — and "growing up" is an exaggeration. With a character like this, you want to find some hidden merit in her, the light under the bushel, but this girl has literally nothing going for her and everything against her. Pregnant with her second baby, she is in danger of being thrown out of school — a school that has taught her almost nothing beyond arithmetic and the ABCs. Her nightmarish mother claims that education won't help her stupid daughter anyway, and she's better off focusing on welfare payments. That's the ticket.

    And she actually has it worse than I've made it sound. The world — family, school and peers — is simply set on destroying her. In moments of stress and scorn, Precious escapes into fantasies in which she's treated like a glamorous, satin-draped TV star, beloved by black and white men alike. These escapes — added to the story by director Lee Daniels — feel ridiculous, in a way, but they do give the viewer a break from the relentless abuse, a chance to regroup and move ahead with the next, almost certainly worse thing.

    Precious seems beyond saving — not only is she trapped in this nearly unfathomable hell, but she has no personal resources whatsoever — emotional, educational or financial — to deal with it. She barely knows she's being mistreated, she doesn't have the maturity or smarts to make a change in her life, and she's a rotund young woman with a scowl on her face, so nobody is running to help her. Almost nobody.

      Mariah Carey and Gabby Sidibe in Precious. in Precious
      Mariah Carey and Gabby Sidibe in "Precious."
    Helpful people do start to show up and make little differences, and things do start to change for Precious. But this is why the film really works — the changes are tiny and incremental. It's not like at the end she turns into a beautiful swan and we all rejoice. What happens is that Precious learns tiny but important lessons, and takes baby steps toward recreating herself as a human being with dignity. But where she winds up at the end of the movie is just barely ahead of where she started. Her theme song is "I Might Survive."

    Daniels — who previously made "Monster's Ball" and "The Woodsman" — has done a rather amazing job skating across the thin ice of melodrama and making such an over-the-top situation believable. But more than anything, the film hinges on performances.

    Gabby Sidibe does a terrific job showing the glimmers of enlightenment as they occur to her mostly-hostile character. (In a press conference at the New York Film Festival, Daniels cracked up the audience with stories of real-life Sidibe's sense of humor, the opposite of what she's asked to play on screen.) Mo'Nique of "The Mo'Nique Show" is stunning as Precious's mom, pulling off just an iota of humanity, when she has to, in a pretty downright evil character.

    And many secondary characters are also outstanding — the most prominent of them Paula Patton as Precious's teacher; the most famous of them, Mariah Carey as her social worker. (I didn't even recognize her until the end, when I thought, "Wait, which one was Mariah Carey?") What's cool about her role is that she has to care about the train wreck that is Precious, but not care more than an office worker who has hundreds of other cases to deal with. I somehow missed her star turn in "Glitter" back in 2001, but what do you know — the girl really can act. We ought to see more of her in serious roles.

    OCTOBER 7, 2009

    Reader comments on Precious:

  • precious   from tabatha , Mar 24, 2010
  • Precious   from EminaB, Jan 9, 2011

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