The glass isn’t even half full

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Pre­cious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sap­phire, in­ner-city hor­ror-drama, rated R, Re­gal DeVar­gas, 3 chiles

How many times when you’ve been hav­ing a bad day has some­one said to you, “Cheer up! Things could be worse”? As ob­nox­ious as it sounds, that plat­i­tude is of­ten true. But for Claireece Pre­cious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), it might not be. The poor, il­lit­er­ate, and obese black teen lives in Har­lem with her mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), a couch po­tato who emo­tion­ally and phys­i­cally abuses her daugh­ter ev­ery chance she gets, even though Pre­cious cooks, cleans, and waits on her hand and foot. When Pre­cious’ drug-ad­dicted fa­ther both­ers to shows his face at home, he rapes her; the re­sult is that she is preg­nant with her sec­ond child by him. Their first has se­vere Down syn­drome and lives with Pre­cious’ grand­mother, though this doesn’t stop Mary from us­ing the child to beef up her wel­fare check. Though she’s 16, Pre­cious is still in mid­dle school, and she’s about to be kicked out. Luck­ily, her con­cerned prin­ci­pal pays her a late-night visit to tell her about an al­ter­na­tive school called Each One Teach One, where Pre­cious might be able to pur­sue her GED.

Pre­cious is based on a novel (which the film’s clunky ti­tle will never let us for­get) pub­lished in 1996. Au­thor Sap­phire has said that she cre­ated the char­ac­ter of Pre­cious as an amal­gam of young women she en­coun­tered while work­ing as a lit­er­acy teacher in Har­lem and the Bronx. The novel was adapted for the screen by first-time screen­writer Ge­of­frey Fletcher and di­rected by Lee Daniels (who di­rected 2005’s Shad­ow­boxer and was a pro­ducer of Mon­ster’s Ball). Pre­cious won the Grand Jury Prize and the Au­di­ence Award at this year’s Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val, has al­ready gar­nered a best-pic­ture nom­i­na­tion from the Hol­ly­wood For­eign Press As­so­ci­a­tion (not to men­tion nods for sev­eral of the per­form­ers), and is bound to rack up more nom­i­na­tions and ac­co­lades as awards sea­son gets go­ing in earnest.

It’s a good, some­times great, movie. To its credit, Pre­cious re­sists the Hol­ly­wood temp­ta­tion to wrap it­self up in a neat lit­tle pack­age topped with a pretty, shiny bow. It doesn’t have a happy end­ing. But just be­cause a movie is sad, sen­ti­men­tal, or bru­tally frank, that doesn’t mean it’s great.

Pre­cious is note­wor­thy for paint­ing an un­flinch­ingly lurid pic­ture of in­ner-city Amer­ica in the 1980s and for hav­ing a pro­tag­o­nist who is poor, over­weight, black, and a teenage sin­gle mother. But Daniels seems too de­ter­mined to shove ug­li­ness in our faces, ham-hand­edly jux­ta­pos­ing rape scenes and greasy meat boil­ing in a pan, for ex­am­ple. While the con­di­tions of Pre­cious’ life are cer­tainly hor­ri­fy­ing, the film felt more in­struc­tional and preachy than gen­uinely en­gag­ing and mov­ing. By heap­ing to­gether poverty, obe­sity, child abuse, il­lit­er­acy, rape, in­cest, teen preg­nancy, Down syn­drome, and AIDS, the film started to seem like a new type of hor­ror movie.

Pre­cious wouldn’t suc­ceed were it not for the su­pe­rior per­for­mances. New­comer Sidibe is sweet and sub­tle. Though the char­ac­ters of her class­mates felt a lit­tle overly stereo­typ­i­cal, Jo Ann (Xosha Ro­que­more), Rhonda (Chyna Layne), Con­suelo (An­gelic Zam­brana), Jer­maine (Amina Robin­son), and Rita (Stephanie An­du­jar) pro­vide many of the film’s wel­come mo­ments of lev­ity. Pretty Paula Pat­ton shoul­ders a role we’ve seen umpteen times be­fore— the beau­ti­ful teacher in an in­ner-city school— and she does the best she can with lines that sound bor­rowed from the script of an af­ter-school spe­cial. Sev­eral non­ac­tor celebri­ties make ap­pear­ances as well— among them Lenny Kravitz as a hand­some, car­ing ma­ter­nity-ward nurse and Mariah Carey as the New York so­cial worker who han­dles Pre­cious’ case— though they’re all so ut­terly deglammed that you might not rec­og­nize them. Daniels doesn’t let Kravitz and Carey coast along on star qual­ity; he re­quires them to act, and the re­sult is im­pres­sive. As Pre­cious’ vile mon­ster of a mother, Mo’Nique gives a bone-chill­ing per­for­mance and nearly runs away with the movie. Di­rec­tor of photography An­drew Dunn uses bright spots of color and dra­matic lighting (or lack thereof) to sug­gest glim­mers of hope in the dark­ness.

The film also suc­ceeds by run­ning on the ideas of per­se­ver­ance and hope rather than on syrupy up­beat op­ti­mism. Nearly every­one thinks Pre­cious is worth­less— those who bother to ac­knowl­edge her ex­is­tence in the first place, that is— and they tell her so. Yet she taps into a flick­er­ing no­tion that she is worth­while. She may not ever be the glam­orous movie star she dreams of be­ing, but at least she can make a life for her­self and her chil­dren. If the film has a mes­sage, it’s that any­one can cul­ti­vate a sense of self-worth and carry on. It’s about sur­viv­ing, even in the face of hor­ri­ble, in­sur­mount­able cir­cum­stances. In the end, Pre­cious re­minded me of a line from a song by the late mu­si­cian War­ren Zevon, who ad­mit­ted, “I’d rather feel bad than feel noth­ing at all.”

I will sur­vive: Gabourey Sidibe

To ma’am with love: Gabourey Sidibe, left, and Paula Pat­ton

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