Last weekend, PJ and I saw Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire. I was more than a little hesitant to see this movie, because the trailer makes it clear that it’s about a teenager who is physically, verbally, and sexually abused. But it’s a major Oscar contender, so I had to see it. I’m glad I did; it’s definitely one of the best movies of the year.

Here’s the trailer:

The first thing I have to say is that this is one of the stupidest official titles ever. Did Sapphire require the producers to include the subtitle? Why not just require them to call it Push? As is, it just seem clunky and arrogant, whether the latter is true or not. Do they really expect people to say the whole title if it wins Academy Awards? If I were an Academy member I would be tempted not to vote for it just for the title alone, which would be unfortunate, since it deserves several nominations and at least some wins.

Precious is about the eponymous character, who is sixteen and pregnant with her second child. We quickly learn that she has been raped by her father, her mother’s boyfriend. She lives with her mother, who lives off Precious’s welfare checks, and generally makes Precious’s life miserable. Precious waits on her mother hand and foot, mostly out of fear that her mother will turn abusive without any notice.

One of the things I like most about Precious (and Precious) is that we soon see that Precious is already waging a low level war of passive aggression against her abusive mother. Although she fears her mother’s abuse, she isn’t simply a doormat. For example, she doesn’t buy her mother’s favorite cigarettes on her way home from school. In another scene, she fails to cook dinner according to her mother’s taste. And in a scene briefly shown in the trailer, she stands above her mother on the stairway, defying her verbal abuse. In each case, her passive aggressive acts evoke her mother’s physical abuse, which includes attempts to (more or less) kill Precious, but Precious is quick for her size, almost always managing to duck out of the way of the frying pan aimed at her head just in time.

Gabourey Sidibe‘s performance as Precious is wonderful. As the title character, she carries the emotional burden of the film on her shoulders, so it’s important that we sympathize with her. Sidibe imbues Precious with backbone and street-smarts even while showing us her naiveté and lack of education. Importantly, her Precious isn’t suddenly transformed by some transcendent experience. Instead, she’s grounded in reality.

This reality isn’t pretty, and I like that the film doesn’t gloss over the real problems that confront Precious. I also like that the film’s ending is rather complicated. I don’t want to give anything away, but the fact that the movie is set in the late 1980s matters in how we read the film’s dénouement.

Mo’Nique stars as Precious’s mother, Mary. She is justifiably the front-runner for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar this year. Her performance really comes down to a couple of scenes or groups of scenes. On the one hand, her depiction of Mary’s abuse of Precious is terrifying. She would probably earn an Oscar nomination for these scenes alone. But her last scene near the end of the film is what makes her performance really nuanced and memorable. Her character suddenly does a 180, swearing that her change of heart isn’t just to keep getting Precious’s welfare checks. Despite these assertions, Mo’Nique does a great job complicating this seeming change of heart.

Mariah Carey is also great in her small role as a social worker. One of my favorite moments in the film is when Precious asks her, “What color are you anyway, you some type of black or Spanish?” It’s the question we’ve all been asking, and it helps to break some of the tension in the film. Lenny Kravitz is also good in his small role as a nurse who takes an interest in Precious’s well-being. And Paula Patton manages to play Precious’s inspiring teacher, Mrs. Rain, without making her just a caricature.

Lee Daniels directed Precious. He too is deserving of Oscar recognition. Precious could have felt like another After School Special, but he keeps it grounded. It tells an interesting and somewhat inspiring story without losing touch with reality. I also admire that Daniels is an out gay man, which is rare in Hollywood: an out, gay, black man who directs movies.

All in all, Precious is an excellent film, probably one of my favorites for the year. I highly recommend it.

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