‘Precious': Hell Up In Harlem, By Kurt Loder

A new star arrives, and a few others are re-born.

Claireece Jones is one of life’s write-offs: an illiterate, junk-food-fat Harlem teenager living on welfare with her viciously abusive mother and, from time to time, her father, who drops by to rape her. She already has one child as a result of his assaults — a little girl with Down’s Syndrome — and is currently pregnant with another. Claireece’s future seems anything but uncertain. Somehow, though, she’s managed not to write herself off.

[movie id=”420372″]”Precious”[/movie] is one of those rare movies that come winging in from nowhere and knock you out. Gabourey Sidibe, who plays the title character (Claireece goes by the name Precious), is an untrained actress — a Bronx college student whose only performing background is in school stage plays. But she has great instincts, and watching her draw out flickers of hope through the mask of sullen indifference that Precious presents to the world is thrilling to watch.

The movie is based on the 1996 novel “Push,” by Ramona “Sapphire” Lofton. (Thus the picture’s full, clunky title: “Precious: Based on the Novel ’Push’ by Sapphire.”) The story is set in 1987. Sixteen-year-old Precious — who’s been shuffled along into the ninth grade in public school despite her inability to read or write — feels defeated by the educational system, which treats her as “just ugly black grease to be wiped away.” She has a talent for math, though, and maybe other things, too. So a sympathetic principal directs her to a special GED program for troubled kids called Each One Teach One (a phrase that dates back to black slavery days). In this makeshift school, she comes under the warm tutelage of a teacher called Ms. Rain (a ravishing performance by Paula Patton), the first grownup who’s ever shown an interest in her. She’s also thrown in with a small group of fellow students who’ve been as beaten down by life as she has, but who share with her a pugnacious determination to rise above.

Apart from Sidibe, who seems a natural candidate for a Jennifer Hudson Memorial Oscar nomination, the picture is filled with other vivid performances, especially by Xosha Roquemore as the ghetto-fabulous classmate Jo Ann (“My favorite color is fluorescent beige!”); by Mariah Carey as a social worker (a small part, but Carey, a droopy brunette here, nails it); and by Lenny Kravitz, who’s almost unrecognizable at first as a sweet-natured male nurse in the hospital where Precious gives birth to her second child. (He’s found a way out of the urban jungle — a gentle demonstration that she can, too.)

The movie’s most startling revelation, though, is the comedian Mo’Nique, whose ferocious performance as Precious’ mother, Mary, is dark and frightening. Mary is a vile woman, endlessly battering her daughter and deriding her dream of bettering herself. (She keeps pushing Precious to go down to the welfare office and sign up for her own life of helpless dependence.) Toward the end of the picture, Mo’Nique delivers a long, spellbinding soliloquy — Mary’s attempted justification of her hateful behavior — that is as breathtaking a scene as any in recent films.

The movie might have sunk into sentimental uplift at several points. But director Lee Daniels observes the story with a fairly cool eye, and even the fantasy sequences sprinkled throughout (in which Precious envisions herself as a glamorous star in a music video, or preening on a red carpet) generally sidestep cheap manipulation and lend the picture a striking, dreamlike quality. And the ending, in which Precious finally awakes from the nightmare of her life, isn’t a predictable syrupy triumph. It’s only a new beginning. Which is all that this remarkable character ever really wanted.

Don’t miss Kurt Loder’s reviews of “The Men Who Stare At Goats”, “The Box” and “The Fourth Kind”, also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we’ve got on “Precious.”

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