I will admit to being surprised when Lee Daniels' new film "Precious" opened in third place at the box office this weekend, bringing in $5.8 million on less than 200 screens across the nation.
After all, "Precious" (which opens in Detroit area theaters this weekend) is not the feel-good type of crowd-pleaser that one would associate with a Saturday night at the movies; it's an often-devastating and emotionally wrenching drama that often hurts to watch. The movie is very good, but it doesn't provide the escapism of "2012" that often propels films to the top of the charts.
While some would argue that the support of Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey - who signed on as executive producers after seeing the film at the Sundance Film Festival - has driven much of the movie's support, I am going to chose to be more hopeful: Audiences are flocking to "Precious" because it is the rare film experience that gives you a character worth rooting for and a story worth seeing, presented by actors who rocket past any previous expectations we have of them.
Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) is a 350-pound 17-year-old living in Harlem. She attends middle school because she is illiterate. At home she endures a verbally and physically abusive mother (comedian Mo'Nique) who is less interested in Precious' well-being than in the welfare checks that keep food on the table. As the film begins, Precious is about to be expelled from school; she is pregnant with her second child from her father.
The opening scenes are as bleak as any I've endured in a movie theater: Precious' life makes the kids from "Slumdog Millionaire" look like a vacation in Bombay. We learn, through her mumbled and lifeless narration, that she is good at math but doesn't apply herself at school because of her home life. She retreats into a fantasy world where she's a model or movie star and then, when reality comes crashing in, she confides in the audience that she wishes she was dead. After witnessing one of her confrontations with her mother - as shrill, violent and hateful a character as I've ever seen - we begin to realize that death might actually be considered a blessing for Precious.
But hope is glimpsed when Precious, expelled from her classes, is sent to an alternative school where an idealistic inner city teacher (Paula Patton) sees her potential. Despite her mother's put-downs, Precious begins to apply herself for the first time, learning to read and write, and building friendships for the first time among the girls in her class. The rough, vulgar shell that protects her on the street begins to melt away and Sidibe shows us the smiling, funny and beautiful person that is finally given a chance to come out of hiding and dream of a better life for herself and her children.
The description is probably a bit too simple and, on paper, it sounds like "Precious" is another troubled-teen-makes-good story, ala "Good Will Hunting." Yet Daniels' (producer of "Monster's Ball") is wise enough not to make this the story of how Precious becomes a genius; her struggle is not to publish a book or graduate college. Her challenge is to read, write and learn how to navigate life on her own. The story is not so much about Precious' success, but about the very possibility of success appearing to this girl for the first time; as bleak and dark as the story gets, it's anchored by the goodness and hope of those who don't give up on Precious, such as her teacher or a kind-yet-tough social worker (a nearly unrecognizable Mariah Carey).
To see Sidibe in character as "Precious" and then watch her in an interview is as startling a thing as I've ever witnessed; what she accomplishes with this role is one of the strongest feats of acting I've seen in years. In the beginning of the film, Sidibe captures Precious as closed-up, angry and even violent, her voice a series of rough mumbles and expletives. Yet Sidibe lets enough of the character's humor and longing seep through to garner audiences sympathy; the Precious we see at the end of the film is a transformed, hopeful and wiser young woman, but the transformation is smooth because Sidibe lets those seeds exist in the beginning. The story is a triumph not because Precious becomes a different person but because those glimpses we see of her in the beginning are finally allowed to burst forth and shine.
I was shocked by the work done by Mo'Nique here. In films like "Soul Plane," she's always been a loud, brassy stereotype, grating on the eardrums and the patience. Here, the comedienne creates as evil and despicable a character as I've ever seen, not just in her physical abuse, but in the vitriol Precious' mother spews at her own flesh and blood. A confrontation when Precious brings her newborn child home to meet his grandmother quickly escalates into one of the most wrenching, horrific and heart-breaking moments I've ever witnessed onscreen. Yet Mo'Nique refuses to turn the character into a caricature and there is a scene near the end where she moved this reviewer to tears, revealing that Precious' mother isn't so much contemptible as pitiable.
Much has been made of Daniels' use of musicians like Carey and Lenny Kravitz (as a male nurse) in the film. I was surprised at how low-key their performances were; this is not a case of grand-standing but of clever casting. Kravitz is subtle in his minor role, and Carey's small but crucial role is strong and brave, considering that the notorious diva allows herself to be filmed without makeup or a flattering hairstyle.
Daniels himself could learn to dial back on the theatrics a bit; he's a fan of swooping camera tricks and artistic touches when they aren't called for (a glow coming from the classroom is awkward and ham-handed); this is an otherwise gritty film and the auteur tendencies only call attention to themselves. Likewise, the film's final scene feels a bit abrupt and the impact of a third act's revelation is never fully dealt with.Still, with performances as strong as anything I've seen all year and an undeniably gripping story, "Precious" holds the attention. Sidibe creates a character nothing like we're used to and it's a credit to her that we stick with Precious until the end. And it's the rare film where hope feels genuine, happy endings feel earned and the tears are justified.