Status: Un Certain Regard
It would be easy to start this review with something about Mariah Carey and Glitter, and that film’s infinitely rotten centre being a bad omen for Lee Daniel’s adaptation of Sapphire’s novel Push. But I’m far more grown up than that, and besides I hate lazy journalism, so I’ll stick to analysing the film on its own merits.
I have to say I wasnt really that aware of Precious (or Push as I believe it may be called Stateside) coming into the festival, and stumbled across an article about it in one of the festival dialies that Im becoming increasingly burdened by, which convinced me it was essential viewing. I had heard some buzz- considerable praise in the shape of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, but still the project never seemed to light a torch for me. A quick thumb through the official programme told me everything I needed to know- an illiterate adolescent from a despicably abusive home seeks affirmation and progress at an “alternative school” in Harlem. How the twin musical talents of Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz would fit into the tale remained to be confirmed, but the project suggested enough grit and soul initially to make me feel enormously confident about it.
Thankfully my confidence was rewarded with one of the best movies I have seen in recent years. Blending the cold, harsh truth of incestuous and physical abuse with a surprisingly upbeat tone in places and a strong individual voice, Precious deserves to win the Un Certain Regard prize, and I would be very surprised if there wasnt the faintest whiff of Oscar optimism attached before long. I dare anyone who thinks I deal only in hyperbole to go and watch it as soon as you can and not feel exactly the same way.
Under Lee Daniels’ stewardship the movie segues from attrocity to escapist fantasy and life-affirming positivity with ease, and the particular scenes where Precious is being abused and retreat into her fantasy world are handled with an intricate delicacy that makes the laughs funnier for their juxtaposition over the scenes of abuse. This could very easily have been handled like the 1990′s Brit-grit films (The War Zone, Nil By Mouth), but a similarly full-frontal approach to the abuse wouldnt have worked as well as the style Daniels employs- only ever offering fragmented glimpses cut in amongst the scenes of fantasy which mark the sequences with a profoundly touching pathos.
In terms of the cast, there are no weak performances: Gabby Sidibe sparkles as Precious (up until she has to cry at the end, which doesnt come so effortlessly as the attitude or the resilience), though the unfortunate acoustics of the screening cinema combined with a slightly careless vocal mix (the excellent soundtrack is pitch perfect though) means she sounds a lot like Biggy Smalls throughout the film, and can be difficult to understand. Comedien Mo’Nique is the epitome of maternal evil as Precious’ mother Mary, ranging from sadism to self-pity through a caleidoscopic spectrum of abusive behaviour, and the performance is so complete that her malignance is utterly compelling and utterly believable.
Elsewhere, Aleisha Keys-lookalike Paula Patton is believable as the alternative school teacher, and is particularly fine when she learns of Precious’ past and continued abusive relationships, and the gaggle of school mates- a real rag-tag group- offer some grity heart and light relief. Along with Precious’ frequent flights of fancy into her own imagined world (where she is skinny and white with blonde hair) and the comic touches her character offers in general, the bevvy of friends offer a perfect counterbalance to the more morose events of the film. What could have been an exercise in melancholy, reinforcing the victim-status of Precious thusly becomes a tale of redemption (despite the final dark twist) and a very uplifting experience.
Regardless of the performances of the main players, there will be an element within critical circles who are only interested in the performances of Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz; wanting to know whether they follow the pre-ordained arc that most music/acting cross-overs have set. Hats off to Carey, who is actually superb as Precious’ social worker/counsellor- the scene between her, Precious and the abusive mother (Mo’Nique) is irresistible viewing and is as much about Mariah’s reactions to Mo’Nique’s confessions as it is about the breakdown itself. She is understated and never over-acts, measuring her performance perfectly in her interactions with Precious (especially when Precious sasses her about her race), and limiting herself to the right amount of fleeting emotion as demanded by the character. She is not a main character though, so to continually refer to the film as her film, or as “the Mariah-Carey starring Precious” is deluding and downright disrespectful to the rest of the cast. Kravitz similarly is a bit part player, though the screen time he has is pretty accomplished,as his male nurse offers further light relief when Precious’ friends take a fancy to him. And he looks as good as ever.
I may have been paddling through a pool of over-excitement when I came out of the screening and was duly thrust into the ITN camera spot-light, but my sentiment that this was the best thing I had seen up until that point (Taking Woodstock came after) remains true.