All the hype about Precious (let's drop the rest of its clunky title) makes one wonder how any film could live up to it.
After being anointed as a Sundance, Cannes and Toronto film festival event, embraced by critics and adopted by Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, this tiny movie with a heart as big as its young hero can't be that good. Can it?
Yes, it is.
A more unlikely scenario to build a new classic around is hard to imagine. Claireece Precious Jones, played by sneakily impressive newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, is a morbidly obese, illiterate inner city teenager, pregnant for the second time by her father, with an enabling, nearly demonic mother (Mo'Nique, start rehearsing an acceptance speech).
Precious is so withdrawn from normal life that she practically blends into her bleak ghetto surroundings. Whatever potential she possesses is customarily dashed by cruel comments and actions, the most devastating from her mother, accusing Precious of stealing her man rather than admitting it was rape.
A social worker (Mariah Carey) can't get through to her, an alternative school teacher (Paula Patton) barely does, and when life pushes her a step forward, fate shoves her two steps back.
It isn't a pretty picture, except for the fantasies Precious retreats toward at her lowest moments. She daydreams of being a singer or dancer on BET, and dating a light-skinned African-American with nice teeth while flashbulbs pop on red carpets. If you've ever wondered exactly what a director does, watch how Lee Daniels, in only his second film, blends that wishful happiness into harsh horrors, enabling viewers to share what Precious is thinking.
One brilliant example: When the father shoves Precious into bed for sex, she can't resist or else risk death. Staring at the ceiling to take her mind off what's happening, Precious focuses on a tiny crack in the plaster. We see her point of view as the crack widens and the camera pulls closer, exposing one of her fantasies, like peeking into someone else's existence. At that moment, I was convinced of this film's modest greatness.
There's also an abundance of earthy humor in Precious' predicaments, often from her alt-school classmates talking smack, delusions of something better just around the corner, or an affront so offensive that shocked laughter keeps viewers from crying. Sometimes it's a musical choice on the soundtrack or when — in a fiercely original moment — Daniels transforms his film into an urban version of a landmark Italian film. You have to see it to believe it.
Daniels isn't throwing a pity party here; more like a welfare-class cotillion for a lost then possibly found soul. The movie is open-ended, without the crowning moment Precious deserves. Yet at the fadeout we're more hopeful it can happen than everything we've seen would lead us to believe. That's spectacular storytelling.
Precious is a rarity in movies today, a small but tragically universal slice of life that appears to be one thing before blossoming into something else, something extraordinary. It is a movie cloaked in depravity and hopelessness yet encourages the best aspects of human nature, especially the power of education despite resentment from those who don't have it. Precious demolishes the supposition that a film by and about a certain culture can't have deep meaning for others.
And unless December holds a superior surprise, Precious is the best movie of 2009.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs. tampabay.com/movies.