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RCE Info


Precious: Based on the Novel ''Push'' by Sapphire

Lionsgate Home Entertainment // R // March 9, 2010
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Casey Burchby | posted March 5, 2010 | E-mail the Author

The awkwardly-titled Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire is one of the most lauded films of 2009, nominated for six Oscars, all in "major" categories (including Best Picture). It is a portrait of urban life that pulls no punches, detailing elements of our society often considered unmentionable in mainstream films - abuse, incest, disease, and other plagues related to poverty - sometimes hinted at but rarely depicted in the fearless, straightforward manner of Precious. The value of the film lies with this courage, and with that of its actors. For all this, however, Precious can't help but feel like a really rough after-school special - a movie about social problems and a denigrated inner-city heroine who ultimately finds redemption. While the plot and subject matter may ring true, the themes, unfortunately, are trite, and despite the best efforts of a talented cast, the film doesn't rise above them.

Sixteen year-old Harlem resident Clarice "Precious" Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is pregnant, for the second time. And, for the second time, her father is responsible. Upon discovering this, her school principal recommends that Precious begin attending an alternative school for kids facing serious dysfunction in their lives. The girl's shiftless, liquor-addled mother, Mary (Mo'Nique), resents everything about her daughter, subjecting her to torrents of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. At the new school, Miss Rain (Paula Patton) presides over a class of seven or eight girls all trying for their GEDs. For the first time, Precious learns to read and write. A social worker, Miss Weiss (Mariah Carey), tries to get a handle on the girl's background and circumstances, leading to confrontation with Mary over the long history of abuse. Ultimately, Precious is resolved to sever ties with her mother and complete her studies.

Precious is mostly carried by its actors. In the lead role, Gabourey Sidibe is astonishing. This part is her acting debut, and she is beyond impressive. At no point does Precious feel like a character being "acted out." Sidibe makes the film feel like a documentary. Precious has a deep quiet, a stillness, and a lot of confusion about her identity and worth as a human being. These hallmarks of deep trauma and abuse are portrayed with a seamlessness that would be a feat for any actor, no matter how experienced. Sidibe's slow awakening to self-awareness is equally credible. Amidst all the talk of Oscars for Sandra Bullock or Meryl Streep, Sidibe's performance, though also nominated, is usually not considered a contender. I think it's easily the best of the five.

On the other hand, Mo'Nique's performance as Mary is considered the front-runner to win Best Supporting Actress. And she deserves to win. Although many of her scenes are characterized by incoherent rage, there are several undeniably powerful moments, particularly during her final scene in Miss Weiss's office. Here, Mary talks about the history of abuse against Precious, and in the process reveals a painfully burgeoning awareness of the consequences of her behavior. It's a pivotal, deeply-rooted speech that requires much of Mo'Nique, and she delivers with huge emotional force.

These two key performances are helped in no small way by the supporting work of Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, and the young actresses who play Precious's classmates. Lenny Kravitz shows up for no apparent reason as a male nurse who attends the birth of Precious's second child. Despite the very able acting talent assembled here, Precious can't escape the familiarity of themes and subject matter that have been treated over and over again in countless memoirs and made-for-TV movies. The "uplifting" finale, while avoiding the treacle of sloppier films, still feels forced. After spending a good ninety minutes on the dire, disgusting, violent, morally vacant environment that Precious has lived in for her sixteen years, the movie takes us on a swift upward arc, wanting us to believe that Precious is on her way up and out of the hell she has known life to be up to that point. While things can only get better for our heroine, the path seems a bit too smooth - or perhaps it's that the film doesn't do enough to illustrate what the path really looks like. Certainly things won't be easy for Precious, but we aren't given too much indication of what she has ahead of her - only that it will be better than Mary's place.

I wish in some ways that director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey S. Fletcher had taken a narrative approach that was more strongly rooted in its characters. Instead, this film opts for the common route of "social issue" films, which is to suggest that monolithic external forces of good or evil can bat our characters into good circumstances or bad, and that all Precious needs to do is "choose" a better path, and the rest will take care of itself. This attitude strips characters of individual integrity, and despite Sidibe's outstanding performance, the writing betrays the character, robbing her of the complexity that gives credit to the notion that even people seemingly trapped in such inhumane ruts may truly take charge of their lives.


The Video
Lions Gate presents Precious on DVD in an enhanced 1.78:1 transfer. The visuals have a high-contrast, washed-out look that befits the decaying urban setting. Interiors are often lit with fluorescents, or are totally dark and decrepit (Mary's tenement, for example). The look is mostly gritty and depressing, and the transfer replicates it well. There is occasional noise visible in scenes with lots of detail, but generally this is a good, film-like transfer.

The Audio
The DVD features English tracks in both Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and in Dolby 2.0 stereo. Both tracks are excellent, although there is not a whole lot of surround activity in this dialogue-driven film. The 5.1 track features active music surrounds in a few scenes, and some ambient effects. The stereo track is perfectly serviceable, with clear dialogue.

The Extras
The disc contains a few fairly substantial bonus features. Director Lee Daniels provides an informative and impassioned commentary track. He gushes to excess, however, which gets in the way of a detailed discussion of the production. From Push to Precious (15:22) looks at how the novel was adapted into a screenplay. A Precious Ensemble (18:32) takes us into the casting process, particularly the discovery of Sidibe. Oprah and Tyler: A Project of Passion (9:31) explains how Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry - who are both interviewed - came to serve as the film's executive producers. A Conversation with Author Sapphire and Director Lee Daniels (8:27) is somewhat redundant, but it's still interesting to witness the two major creative forces behind the film talk to each other about it. Gabourey Sidibe's Audition (2:33) is well worth a look. A single Deleted Scene (1:45) is next, which shows Precious attending an incest survivors' meeting. Reflections on Precious (1:00) is bafflingly brief, while the Theatrical Trailer (2:32) wraps things up.

Final Thoughts

Precious is a good film that could have been much better. However, it does give us two unforgettable performances, by leads Gabourey Sidibe and Mo'Nique, both of whom deserve the Oscars they were nominated for. It's a tough, brave film on a certain level, even though it fails to live up to the promise of its characters. Recommended.

Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.

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