KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews Precious.
Related Story: Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire
Q: It’s not often that a film walks away from Sundance with both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize. But the film “Precious” did just that earlier this year. Beth, tell us what this film is about?
BETH: Originally the film was called “Push,” which is the name of the novel by Sapphire it was based on. But there was another film with the same title already out so “Push” took on the name of its lead character, “Precious.” Precious is a 16-year-old African American girl living in Harlem in the 1980s. Here’s how the trailer sets up the contradictions in her life.
CLIP “Precious” Trailer
Q: The book caused controversy with some criticizing it for its negative portrayal of African American men and for its stereotypes about lazy welfare moms. How do these elements play out in the film?
BETH: They still exist and are problematic initially. But as the character of Precious develops and works to lift herself out of illiteracy and poverty, these stereotypes fade because she becomes an individual. The film becomes a story about overcoming odds and changing your fate. If Slumdog Millionaire had the notion of things happen because they are written, Precious suggests you can always change your fate. As the story moves out of Precious’ wretched home life and into the classroom where she meets an inspiring teacher and girls like herself, the film improves.
Q: This sounds like a stark, gritty story. Is that how director Lee Daniels chooses to tell it?
BETH: Yes and no. Daniels doesn’t flinch in showing how painful Precious’ life is. Her mother tells her she wished she’d had an abortion and repeatedly tells her daughter that she’s too stupid to ever get off welfare. But Daniels also gives Precious a fantasy life, a way out of the daily grimness through some impressionistic sequences that illustrate Precious’ interior life. So when she’s being raped, her mind escapes through the ceiling and takes flight from reality. But these fantasy sequences prove to be a mixed bag. Some are very effective as when the obese Precious looks in the mirror and sees a thin white girl with long blond hair. But they fail badly when they put Precious in an Italian art film.
Q: So what do you see as the film’s strengths?
BETH: It’s central performances -- Gabourey Sidibe as the beaten down but resilient Precious, Paula Patton as the dedicated teacher, and Mo’Nique as Precious’ abusive mom who has some horror stories of her own. These three women form a powerful core for the film and they rise above the unevenness of the direction and script. But there’s also some stunt casting with Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz given supporting roles, and they prove to be distractions.
“Precious” opens tomorrow (Friday) at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas. You can find more of Beth’s reviews online at K-P-B-S-dot-O-R-G-slash-cinema-junkie.