TIFF Review: Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire

Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire will undoubtedly be one of the most powerful American films presented at TIFF 2009 and is well worthy of a gala presentation.

Set in Harlem 1987, Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey ‘Gabby’ Sidibe) is struggling to exist in a hell that was not of her creation. She is 16 and pregnant for the second time by her own father. Her mother (Mo’Nique) is emotionally abusive and physically brutal. Her obesity is both a result of and shield against the horribleness that is her life and though she is already in grade nine, she cannot read or write.

If this story sounds heartbreaking, it is. Moreover, its presentation is raw and vibrant making it one of the most emotionally draining screenings I’ve ever attended. However, it is also inspiring and deeply hopeful as Precious is determined to overcome all the obstacles placed in her path and better her life by getting an education and doing well for her children.

The actors reach deep to deliver resounding performances that cover the spectrum from monstrous to saintly. Mo’Nique is terrifying and so full of hate, even when she speaks softly there is a menace lurking behind her words. Paula Patton plays Blu Rain, Precious’ saviour in the form of a teacher at an alternative school Precious attends after she’s expelled from her own school for being pregnant again. Patton radiates positive energy and the special interest she takes in Precious’ life is a warming light in a very dark tunnel. Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz have cameos as a social worker and nurse respectively; Carey’s transformation makes her nearly unrecognizable and Kravitz is naturally charming. But the standout performance belongs to newcomer Sidibe. She is often silent but it is always obvious how she feels, whether it’s happy, sad, determined or wary.

When Precious endures violent acts, she escapes to a fantasy life of glamour and acceptance. It’s bright, filled with love and she is always smiling. However, as a member of the audience, it feels more difficult to break away from the horrible force of the scenes to such a cheerful unreality; it does, on the other hand, encourage a quicker recovery from the initial devastation.

Director Lee Daniels does not set out to scar the audience, choosing to set most of the physical violence off-screen. Nonetheless, it is often the verbal and emotional revelations that have more of an impact. The camera is constantly moving, bringing to focus various reactions and small character gestures. The use of Precious’ narrative to guide the story keeps the insight and life of Sapphire’s language.

Precious is likely to bring tears, or at least anguish, to anyone’s eyes, but it also inspires joy and hope that becomes the reward at the end of the darkness.