2009, unlike the previous year, was a weak one for movies. With respect to the grossly overlooked, Big Fan, it was particularly weak for New York based movies.
After the death of the Big Studio's indie-subdivisions, 2009 truly marked the end of a brief (2005-2008) filmmaking Renaissance. It just might be the first of many bad years to come. Still, all of the current and future Hollywood crap is forgiven thanks to Precious, perhaps the single greatest film of the decade and unquestionably the greatest New York film of the decade.
Brutal, blunt, disturbing, powerful but most of all, heartbreaking, Lee Daniels' piece is simply put, a modern day opera. An unsubtle, uncompromising, unapologetic, nightmare set in the pre-rezoned, pre-high rise luxury condos, pre-gentrification, pre-hidden away, pre-Bill Clinton Harlem of the late 1980s. A time when (just 8 miles north of the "greed is good" high life of Wall Street) crime, crack, and AIDS ran rampant in a community that even 20+ years later, is still awaiting Ronald Reagan's Trickle Down.
The story is that of Clareece "Precious" Jones, a morbidly obese, illiterate, inner city, dark skinned, black adolescent who at 16 is already pregnant with her second child. Like the first, a four year old with Down Syndrome whom she refers to as, Li'l Mongol, this second pregnancy is the result of a brutal incestuous rape by her own father. A father who only shows up to rape Precious. As horrific as that is, it's actually Precious' mother, Mary, who spends most of the film terrifying audiences. Viciously depraved over losing her "man" to her own daughter, Mary spends her life treating Precious as a personal slave. She too beats and rapes Precious when not also verbally attacking her to the point where the teen is a terrified shell of a human.
That concept, along with the fact that the teen's self-esteem is so low she fantasizes (the film is loaded with comedic but ultimately heartbreaking dream sequences) about being a skinny white blonde says as much about race, history, and sociology in America as any previous movie ever has. And unlike other movies which do try tackling those issues, there is nothing preachy here. There are no hidden political agendas (showing Mary as a fat, lazy, chain-smoking, Welfare Queen and Precious as another lost number in a cold system which has been broken for decades) here either. Instead, it simply reveals the worst of all possible nightmares. A disgusting nightmare which, unlike the Disney-esque cartoon that was Slumdog Millionaire, is never sugar coated. The many vibrantly colorful, surreal, dream scenes (when Precious is not dreaming of being a blonde, she's dreaming of marrying her white math teacher, or dreaming of becoming a pop-diva with a light skinned boyfriend) only highlight the fact that, unlike the mythically fortunate and often befriended Slumdog, Precious will never be able to truly shake the grotesque reality of everyday life.
While it later becomes apparent that the nightmare will never end, the film is not sheerly nihilistic in a way that the glossy but pretentious, racially offensive, ridiculously silly, uber unrealistic, two hour, "Just Say No" commercial that Requiem for a Dream was. Despite the absolute failures of a bureaucratic, inner city public school system which has abandoned Precious into the 9th grade, the film also exposes a glimmer of humanity. She takes advantage of that glimmer by getting help from an alternative school teacher, of the "Each One Teach One" program. From that teacher, Miss Rain, to a hospital worker, Nurse John, who's there for the delivery of Precious' second child, to Mrs. Weiss, a tough-love welfare case worker who at first seems to be simply going through the motions of a thankless job, Precious does find some hope. Not enough hope to ever save the brutalized teen, but enough to give her the necessary self-worth to simply get through the day. Unfortunately, the brief flicker of light in a world this dark is also heartbreaking.
While the story, based on the novel, Push, by Sapphire, is strong (the author was an inner city teacher during that time period) and the foul mouthed street dialogue is authentic, Lee Daniels needs separate recognition for packing the film with adrenaline at every turn. Whether it be the dreary hell of reality, the colorful tease of dreams, the fast popping cuts in between, or even an homage to Vittorio De Sica's neorealist, Two Women, Daniels constantly keeps the audience on edge with his deep bag of tricks. Some of his tricks, like the final blowout involving a baby seem manipulative. All of them seem abrasive. Still, the situations ring true and Daniels should be applauded for not pulling punches and not being delicate in addressing this cruel subject matter. While others might have craved more subtlety, Daniels accomplishes his mission. He gives us one of the most unloved characters in movie history and makes every audience member with a heart, fall for her.
Accolades to Daniels aside, it's his cast (Daniels was once a casting director) which truly shines. Gabby Sidibe as Precious, in her very first role, truly captures what it's like to be a victim of abuse. Shy, timid, often violent and angry herself, she shows all the signs of someone stuck in a gruesome home life. Mo'Nique, as Mary, notorious for a brand of comedy which is as obnoxious as it is unfunny, delivers in a way rarely seen by any Academy Award winner before. Evil incarnate, Mo'Nique's character later tries justifying her sins in one of the most desperately pathetic yet stunningly powerful monologues ever put on film. Mariah Carey, notorious for being a horrific actress, shines as the hardened case worker who has seen it all. Until the end, her subtle performance (the only bit of subtlety in this film) truly leaves you wondering if she really cares, or is simply doing a job. Paula Patton, as the teacher, is also good but not quite as effective as the others. Her character seems almost too perfect. Then again her character was written to serve as the antithesis of the Mo'Nique one. Cameos from musician Lenny Kravitz (also making his feature film debut) as the charismatic, Nurse John, and a slew of young female beginners all playing Precious' classmates help in adding color to the grim despair. The girls in particular bring a doc-like look to the classroom scenes. As unlikely as it may seem, this cast featuring Mo'Nique, Mariah Carey and a bunch of newbies create as strong an ensemble as any seen this past year.
Finally a nod must go to the executive producers, Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry. Oprah, like a black Barbra Streisand, has detractors as rabid as her fans. Perhaps deservedly so, but let's look at her recent track record. She championed Into the Wild (the best movie of 2007) then prior to the 2008 primaries became the first "big name" to endorse Barack Obama, and later still was named PETA's 2008 Woman of the Year before going the extra step of putting her own name on this film. While this isn't "safe" Oprah-like material, her backing makes sense considering her own past as a victim of sexual abuse. Tyler Perry, as unfunny as Mo'Nique and the latest in a long list of black male comedians to throw on lipstick and a house dress for laughs, also jumped on board after the film's Sundance premier. Like Oprah, he too was sexually molested by multiple partners as a child. Instead of keeping their respective pasts a secret, the two joined forces to show worldwide audiences what the absolute worst case scenario looks like.
They should be applauded for not pulling punches in their support of this controversial piece. A film which has generated some disdain from radically conservative and radically liberal critics, each with their own political agenda, alike. A film which has been somewhat ducked by a few unaware middle class whites and panned by a few embarrassed middle class blacks alike for portraying the worst in poor, black, inner city society. A film which offends those with fragile palates. A film which has been troll rated by "too cool for school" contrarians lacking in enough heart or brains to understand what they've actually seen.
A film, however, which also became the first ever to win Audience Awards at both Sundance and Toronto, and whatever Oscar says, easily was the best film of 2009. Easily the 2009 Vinny winner as well! Congratulations must also go to Geoffrey Fletcher, the screenwriter who adapted Sapphire's novel and allowed all of the aforementioned names to make Precious.*
NOTE - For a full list to ALL previous Vinny winners, please click here.