Movies: Precious * * * * *
One of the disadvantages of living far from the centre of the glory that is Hollywood is that we tend to get deluged with hype and marketing spin about films long before we actually get to see them.
This is certainly the case with Precious, a heavyweight drama co-produced by Oprah Winfrey that has been endlessly tipped for Oscar success since its American release almost three months back. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe has been touted as a shoe-in for Best Actress, and US commentators have raved about the film's ability to reduce a stone to floods of tears.
The problem with all this, of course, is that your inner cynic, which always hates being told what to like, is bound to go "oh yeah?" and flounce into the cinema determined to dislike it. In this case, though, that would be difficult because, against the odds, Precious manages to effortlessly live up to its hype. It's based on the novel Push, by African-American writer Sapphire, whose story was inspired by her time as a literacy teacher in Harlem and the Bronx in the 80s and, as you'd imagine, it's pretty grim fare.
Sidibe is Claireece 'Precious' Jones, a morbidly obese African-American 16-year-old who's summoned to the guidance counsellor office at her Harlem high school when it's discovered that she's pregnant. It isn't even her first time, and we subsequently find out that she has already given birth to a little girl with Down Syndrome. Realising that Precious is falling behind in her studies and genuinely concerned, the counsellor suggests she drop out of school as she is pregnant, and attend a special adult education programme called 'Each One Teach One' instead. But when she gets home she finds that her mother (played by Mo'Nique) would rather she forget about her education entirely.
'Home' turns out to be an endlessly recurring nightmare. The father of Precious's kids is her own father, who visits in the dead of night to rape her and has been abusing her since she was a child. Instead of doing something about this, her monstrous and stupid, but endlessly sly, mother has blamed Precious for "stealing her man", and has decimated the girl's confidence over the years by beating her, telling her she's a dimwit, treating her like a slave and forcing her to over-eat.
Never having known a moment's kindness, Precious has concluded that she is unloveable and worthless, and deals with the unimaginable horror of her life by retreating into a fantasy world of music videos and movies premieres. She's on the point of running away from her first day at the 'Each One Teach One' programme when she meets Ms Rain (Paula Patton). One of those teachers with a pure vocation, Ms Rain gradually draws Precious and the other misfit young women in her class out of the darkness of ignorance. And when she finds out the details of Precious's story, she gets even more involved.
Lee Daniels, a relatively inexperienced director, handles this potentially difficult story with aplomb, keeping things simple, fearlessly addressing the story's darker elements and never allowing himself to drift into showiness.
The murky lighting and dirty brown tinge to the scenes of Precious's home life add to the general atmosphere of horror, and the streets of Harlem and the Bronx form a suitably grimy backdrop. But the best thing that Daniels does is stand back and let his cast perform, for the acting here is uniformally excellent.
Mo'Nique is absolutely rivetting as the mother and, having revealed herself as a gorgon, even manages to make us feel a little -- but not much -- sympathy for her before the end. Mariah Carey deserves all the praise she has been getting for her turn as a flabbergasted social worker, and the beautiful Paula Patton is a beacon of humanity for us to cling to.
As for Gabourey Sidibe, it is she who centres the story, and she brings a fierce dignity to the role of this lost soul that makes Precious truly moving. She never plays up the tragedy for effect, and when you're suffering this much there's really no need.