Tuesday, 16 February 2010

My Favourite Colour Is Fluorescent Beige.

Truly, everyone has heard so much about Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire that there doesn't really feel much more to say. Yes, it was the first film ever to take out the Audience Award at the two most influential North American film festivals last year (Sundance and Toronto - taking out the Grand Jury Prize at the former to boot. Plus it nabbed the audience awards at San Sebastian, Hawaii and Chicago.) Yes, it peaked hella way too early, somewhere around September everyone was saying that it would take something mammoth to beat it to the Best Picture Oscar this year. As we now know, it's not getting anywhere near that trophy - Avatar blitzed, The Hurt Locker came from behind, and Up In The Air safely flew through the middle. No one is even mentioning Precious in the same sentence as Best Picture unless they're mentioning that it received a nomination. It's definitely not going to win.

This is a textbook example of buzz creating backlash creating lasting damage for a film that otherwise should have been able to pose more of a threat. Probably released a little too early to be able to carry the high hopes through to Oscar, it nevertheless did the best thing for its box office (and that's the most important thing - let's be honest, Oscar is all glory and no moolah these days.) I do find it a bit upsetting, however, that it is being so comprehensively ignored these days. Apart from the gimme that is Mo'Nique's Supporting Actress Oscar, the only real surprise seems to be the Editing nomination for Joe Klotz and, to a lesser extent, that Lee Daniels arrogance and the Academy love for Clint Eastwood didn't shaft him from the Best Director race.

On to the film. Clareece Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is sixteen, horrendously overweight, failing junior high school and pregnant with her second child. And her father is the father. She is kicked out of her current school, and is pressured to go on welfare by her mother, Mary (Mo'Nique), who is also on welfare and seems to do nothing but sit in her apartment, abuse Precious and smoke, occasionally trying to tidy up when a social worker comes to visit and she reclaims Precious' first daughter from Precious' grandmother - the child has Down's Syndrome, and Mary doesn't want it in the house, but she does want the welfare cheque that looking after a baby brings with it.

Precious enrols in a new school, an alternative school, where her teacher, Ms Rain (Paula Patton) proves an inspiration, very much in the vein of Michelle Pfeiffer's character in Dangerous Minds. She motivates her students to write, to learn to read, to explore what it is they really want to do with themselves. And she cares for them all from the beginning. Precious is also talking to Mrs Weiss (Mariah Carey) at the welfare office, who has taken an interest in the fact that Precious has been raped and impregnated not once, but twice by her own father, under the watchful gaze of her own mother.

I guess this is the majority of the storyline. I'm not going to go into the character arc of Precious, because, when broken down, it's actually quite basic, almost exactly what you'd expect. It does hold on to a few surprises, so that just when you're feeling better about it all it kicks you back down into the depths of despair without so much as an 'excuse me.' The film does manage to leave off on a hopeful note, contrary to all of the reports of how bleak and terrifying the film is. It is bleak and terrifying, but it is also profound and moving, funny in moments, and warming at the end.

The film basically takes any previous concept of female performance and shits all over it. Seriously. I don't aim to be crass, but that's really what I saw. Sidibe, a total newcomer, was astonishing, mumbling her way through trauma and tears, wrenching your heart, but constantly shining a light through the middle of her distress. Patton (her characters is a lesbian! For no reason! It means nothing to the story, is only really mentioned once! Is this the breakthrough we've been waiting for???) is perfect as the inspirational leader, pretty, confident, successful, with just enough superiority to keep the kids in line without once seeming to patronise them. Carey... dare I say it, but I think if Mo'Nique's character hadn't been in the film (because I think it is such a strong character that a lot of people would have been able to turn in award-worthy performances, though maybe not as stunning as Mo'Nique pulled off) there would be serious talk about her being a proper contender for Best Supporting Actress. She's only in a couple of scenes, but the last one especially is so tremendously crafted. As a social worker she's trying to keep her personal feelings and emotions out of it, but failing dismally, and you can see that struggle through her questioning of Mary. A definite match for the Oscar nominated turns by Mo'Nique and Sidibe.

Which brings me to Mo'Nique. Hot. Damn. Seriously. Monstrous. Switching between connivingly nice and outrageously awful in a heartbeat, she turns it all up to eleven, and then manages to push it closer to a hundred. Magnetic at the same time as she is hideous, she never makes Mary so detestable as to stop you from pitying her at least just a bit for whatever has caused her to be such a fearsome and loathsome character. You don't pity her for her desire and need for love, no sir, not when the most obvious candidate for love has been beaten and bullied so badly by both her and those around her, but you do feel sorry for the fact that she so needs to trample her child in order to feel worthy. She pushes so far into the realm of hatred that you come full circle and almost want to help her. Almost being the operative word. At the end of the day, I'd still be quite happy watching her fall under a bus. And all of this doesn't come close to describing the true gravity of her achievement here. Let it be said that if, somehow, she doesn't walk home with an Oscar next month, you can quite rightly expect riots in the streets. I'll be leading them.

All that having been said, it is far from a perfect movie. Some of the directorial choices seemed a little random, and I must say I didn't really enjoy the fantasy cutaways of Precious. I appreciate the idea, but they didn't work for me. They could have, maybe if they were a little more lo-fi, but as they were it felt manipulative. And little things, like pulling away from Mo'Nique's face to her hands in the middle of her final scene's explosive and powerful monologue. WTF? Stick with her face! It's redefining performance! This is what it's all been leading up to! WHY AM I LOOKING AT HER HANDS??? TAKE ME BACK!!! WAAAAH!!! (I really did feel that strongly about it in the movie as well. I think I actually muttered various curse words in surprise in the theatre. Truly.)

Overall, though, the story and the performance did incredible things, enough to help me get past all else. 4.5 stars, but with a note that Precious should still be very, very high on your list of things to see as a masterclass of an entire ensemble doing absolutely everything right every step of the way. Not a foot wrong, even from the lesser supports.

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