Rating: 4 out of 5
There are some films that get you deeply invested and by their end, emotionally spent.
In recent times, Million Dollar Baby stands out as a fine example. But Precious, a film directed by Lee Daniels and championed by Oprah Winfrey, is more than just a sad movie about broken lives and dreams, nor should it be falsely categorised as a sob story.
In fact, while it depicts life at the bottom in the rough, poverty-stricken New York neighbourhood of Harlem, involving domestic violence and abuse, it is ultimately a hopeful story.
Based on the novel Push by performance artist and author Sapphire, it traces the life of a 16-year-old girl of modest circumstances who, despite her above-average proportions (‘traditional build’ in the parlance of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency), admits to feelings of not being ‘here’.
It is more than a case of low self-esteem. It is a case of feeling unwanted, unloved and invisible. And being invisible doesn’t save Precious, played by Oscar-nominated newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, from the constant barrage of verbal and physical abuse from her dead-beat mother (Mo’Nique).
The film is startling for having a number of remarkable scenes of violence. Though not gratuitous or particularly graphic, these are harrowing scenes. In one instance, Precious is actually knocked unconscious from a thrown object.
In others, we see a newborn infant caught in the middle of a mother-daughter fight, and we the audience have our heart in our mouths, our collective breath held tight.
Compared to these moments, the scenes where Precious’ mother, a welfare-reliant layabout, puts her down with crass and denigrating language are a relative respite, though they remain tense, as if balanced on a knife-edge.
Early in the film, we find out that Precious has been kicked out of school, because she is pregnant for the second time – that’s right, second time – by her biological father, her mother’s good-for-nothing long-time boyfriend.
She had been a victim of rape, probably for an extended period, yet she has no sympathy from her mother, or the state, it seems. Her school principal gets her into a special programme for at-risk kids, and this is where Precious starts to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
A caring teacher (Paula Patton), an unlikely support group of socially misfit classmates, and a steely counsellor (Mariah Carey) help bring Precious out of her shell, and the extent of her traumatic past is gradually revealed, as her outlook improves.
Again, it would be a disservice to the film if the above summation gives the impression of a fairy-tale story of redemption.
While there are bright shiny fantasy sequences to which Precious escapes during moments of horrible abuse – she wants life to be like a music video, where she is happy and has a fair-skinned boyfriend – they are part of why this film excels.
Through Precious, whose thoughts we are privy to via an engaging voice-over, it gives a face and opens up the inner life of an abuse victim. But it doesn’t stop there. In a climactic final meeting at the social worker’s office, revelations give the mother’s side of the story as well, uncovering yet another wellspring of hurt and suffering.
This film could turn out to be the achievement of a lifetime for all involved, such is the distinction with which this vision has been realised.
Anyone who watches this film will have to admit that Sidibe, who had no prior acting experience, and Mo’Nique, a former stand-up comedian, deserve their litany of accolades. They inhabit their characters with vivid consequences, and are responsible the film’s emotional core.
Kudos also to an understated Carey, who surprises with her work; it is her best to date as an actress.
At times terrifying, at times buoyant, this is a richly layered film that is thoroughly absorbing and, in crucial moments, simply heart-breaking. It is an excoriating experience, free of cheap sentimentality, and highly recommended for anyone who wishes to get back in touch with strong, genuine emotions.
And it is more, much more, than a so-called sad movie.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.
"Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in!"
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