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Arts and Entertainment

Movie Review: Precious

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There was a time, not long ago, when the early hours of Sunday night meant only one thing: Mo'Nique. Yes, when that supremely confident "big girl" hosted Showtime at The Apollo, a good time was had by all. You could be sure that the audience would be left in stitches, and by the end of the show, anyone who wanted could come on stage to do the Electric Slide with her.

Oh sure, I could have followed her acting exploits. I could have enjoyed her as an airport screener in Soul Plane, or on the sitcom The Parkers. But I couldn't get into Mo'Nique's acting. There was just something off about those performances.

This week sees the release of Precious, another Harlem-based production. Except this one's a drama. And instead of the jolly hostess, Mo'Nique plays the vicious, abusive mother of the title character, a trod-upon, illiterate teen mother who only wants to be loved. Mo'Nique's acting chops are very much up to snuff now. But there are many more reasons to see this movie.

Based on the novel Push by Sapphire, Precious stars Gabourey 'Gabby' Sidibe as the daughter of Mary (Mo'Nique). Set in 1987 Harlem, Precious cooks and cleans for her welfare mother, and deals with the consequences of having been knocked up by her father... twice. At 16, Precious is still in middle school, having been held back because of the birth of her first daughter, Mongo, short for “Mongoloid” due to the child having Down syndrome. The setting is squalid, the circumstances depressing and the future bleak.

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And yet there is joy and hope and real emotion in this movie. When the going gets rough, we're treated to Precious' escapist fantasies of going to movie premieres with a pretty light-skinned boy with a gold tooth, or being a pop star on a music video set to Queen Latifah's "Come Into My House." There's even a fantasy in Italian, oddly enough. These sequences are fresh, visually inventive with surprisingly rendered effects for a small film, and the epitome of adventurous independent cinema.

When she gets kicked out of school and sent to an alternative school called Each One Teach One that features small classes focused on reading fundamentals, Precious speaks in class for the first time, and in so doing she gains confidence and friends. One of the tenets of the film is the healing power of the word. Through journal writing and letters with her teacher Miss Rain (the very good Paula Patton), Precious opens up and we begin to have hope for her and her family.

One of the other reasons to give this movie some love is the dialogue -- you're just not going to hear lines like "Cold-ass pig's feet is nasty as shit" in anything else this year. (You’re also not likely to hear dialogue as raw and unfiltered, so if swearing isn’t for you, you’ve been warned.) Much of the movie features the voice-over narration of the title character, which further illustrates the theme of writing and self-discovery. At one point while listening to Miss Rain talking with her partner, Precious says to herself, "They talk like TV channels I don't watch."

There's also inventive casting. Lenny Kravitz plays Nurse John, a male nurse who Precious meets while having her second kid. Sherri Sheppard of The View plays the alternative school's receptionist. Though she's good in her scenes, her character's only listed as Cornrows. (That's Miss Cornrows if you're nasty.) And then there's Mariah Carey as Mrs. Weiss, a social worker. As someone who can actually claim to have seen Glitter, I never thought Carey was half-bad. In Precious, she's all good.

The pacing of the script by Geoffrey Fletcher is just right, and the raw emotion that director Lee Daniels gets out of the actors is tear-inducing. Daniels and editor Joe Klotz deftly move from scene to scene, with the use of late 80s rap and R&B sometimes rushing to keep up. Andrew Dunn's cinematography uses documentary-style jittery camera and zooms that are at times very disruptive. But that's one of the movie's only faults. That and end credits that are teasingly brief to the point of being illegible. My only guess is they were meant to illicit the sensation of illiteracy in the audience. And if that was the case, job well done.

Review by Ryan Vincent