This one belongs at the Oscars

Lee Daniels’ gritty and startling film Precious deserves its moment in the spotlight

Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe plays the pregnant and illiterate title character in Lee Daniel’s emotional film Precious.

On every year’s Best Picture Oscar list there are films which obviously belong and films which do not. With the change in rules this year to 10 nominees, there are far more of the latter than in previous years. Thankfully, Lee Daniels’ film Precious is decidedly the former.

You won’t find any 3D special effects, no overwrought pseudo-documentary style and no saccharine over-scored sentimental moments here. Instead, you’ll find what many of the other films on this year’s Best Picture list lack: strong, compelling characters brought to life by startling performances and gritty realism. It’s a welcome change.

Precious (bravely portrayed by Gabourey Sidibe) is 16, illiterate, poor and living in a Harlem slum. On top of that, she is pregnant with her second child by her father. Her abusive mother (Mo’Nique) shuts herself in all day watching television and collecting welfare cheques. Precious’s only respite from her life comes through the few hours a day she spends at school and in her frequent daydreams.

She indulges in fantasies of being a dancer, a singer or a movie star. She hopes that one day her math teacher will marry her and take her to live with him in Westchester. But just as quickly and unpredictably as these fantasies start, they come to an end and the harsh reality of her existence returns.

Not all of the performances are great. When Precious is expelled and sent to an alternative school, she encounters an almost Bing Crosby-esque saintly lesbian teacher named Blu Rain (Paula Patton). Rain becomes Precious’s benevolent guardian angel as she does everything she can to make sure that Precious has a place to live and has support for her two children (one of which has Down syndrome). Her positivity is a welcome alternative to the waves of negative energy coming off the screen, but she could use a little more depth.

One of the most pleasant surprises of this year’s awards season has to be Mariah Carey’s stripped down and subtle performance as Precious’s social worker. It nearly makes us forget that she was involved in a little disaster called Glitter.

Also noteworthy is Daniels’s direction. He captures the desolation of the late-‘80s ghetto without glorifying or exploiting poverty. His use of frequent flashbacks and fantasy keeps the audience on their toes and goes a long way in his deep exploration of this central character. Daniels’s Precious is, in the best meaning of the word, exactly that.

Published in Volume 64, Number 21 of The Uniter (March 4, 2010)

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