[Screen It]

(2009) (Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe, Mo'Nique) (R)

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Drama: A 16-year-old girl tries to get an education while dealing with emotional and physical abuse at home, specifically from her angry mother, but also by being pregnant for the second time by her father.
It's 1987 and Claireece "Precious" Jones (GABOUREY "GABBY" SIDIBE) is an overweight, 16-year-old African-American girl who often escapes into a fantasy world where she envisions herself as a celebrity or sometimes as a petite blond white girl. She does so to deal with emotional and physical abuse at home.

Most of that comes from her angry mother, Mary (MO'NIQUE), who sees no use in school and thinks Precious should also go welfare rather than get an education. To make matters worse, Precious is kicked out of school after ending up pregnant by her father, Mary's longtime boyfriend, a man who also fathered her first child (who has Down's Syndrome and lives with Mary's grandmother).

Fortunately for Precious, her principal encourages her to attend an alternate school, Each One/Teach One, where she can prepare to get her GED. Under the tutelage of the caring Ms. Rain (PAULA PAXTON), and visiting social worker Ms. Weiss (MARIAH CAREY), Precious starts to come out of her shell in the small class that also includes the likes of Jo Ann (XOSHA ROQUEMORE), Rhonda (CHYNA LAYNE), Consuelo (ANGELIC ZAMBRANA) and others.

When she delivers her second child -- and meets kind male nurse John (LENNY KRAVITZ) in the process -- Precious' progress in learning how to read and getting an education is put in jeopardy, particularly when her relationship with Mary becomes even more strained than before.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
"Oh, fear not in a world like this,
And thou shalt know erelong,
Know how sublime a thing it is
To suffer and be strong."

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

As a former aspiring screenwriter, I can tell you that writing a script is hard work (contrary to what many a finished Hollywood product would otherwise have you think), often done by oneself, and usually over a long period of time with little to no feedback (good or bad) along the way until the thing is done.

Surprisingly, sometimes one of the hardest things is coming up with just the right title that summarizes or at least generates a feeling about the story and hopefully helps it sell, both to a studio and later to an audience. Equally as surprising, and unlike the script itself, titles can't be copyrighted. Even so, if another film has already beaten yours to the finish line, sometimes it's necessary for a titular change.

Such was the case with "Push," the gritty and unflinching tale of an abused inner-city teen who perseveres despite all that occurs to her. Alas, the 2009 action film "Push" was already in existence, so this rightfully acclaimed little drama became the unfortunately and quite awkwardly titled "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire."

Thankfully, that's about the only thing this disturbing and bleak but amazingly uplifting film gets wrong. While the new title clearly indicates the source material, this easily could have been called "That Which Doesn't Kill You" after the common Nietzsche phrase that concludes with "only makes you stronger."

After all, the title character (Precious, not Sapphire) has to be just that considering the things that she's endured. Sixteen-years-old, she lives with her mentally and physically abusive mother who believes welfare and not education is the answer and future life for her daughter.

Already a mother to a child (who has Down's Syndrome and lives with her grandmother), the protagonist is pregnant for the second time, yet again the result of her father (her mother's boyfriend) raping her. Then there's the overriding fact that she's a black, overweight and unwed mother living in the projects in 1980s era Harlem.

That clearly paints a bleak picture, and thus, as is oft the case, she escapes through fantasy, imagining herself as a famous starlet or even just a pretty blonde white girl while looking in the mirror. Yet, her real escape arrives in the form of two caring women, one a teacher at a unique school, and the other a patient social worker. Through them, the girl realizes there might just be a decent future out there somewhere for her, and thus works to break free from her domineering mother and her overall troubled and sad past.

Working from Geoffrey Fletcher's screenplay adaptation of the source novel, director Lee Daniels wisely avoids various pitfalls that easily could have derailed this pic. While things do get more upbeat as the plot progresses -- at least to a degree -- there's no artificial sweetness added or a Hollywood-ized conclusion where the villain gets theirs and everyone else lives happily ever after. And the film's fantasy segments, while creative in their own right, don't go overboard and get too cutesy for their and especially the film's own good.

Nor does the film contain the "mighty whitey" element (where a white figure comes in to make things better for the minority protagonist) or "magic Negro" one (where the underprivileged black character manages to somehow better the white character's life) that often bedevil movies like this.

While the filmmakers thankfully keep everything grounded in reality, Daniels clearly benefits from suburb (if seemingly unlikely) casting and strong to standout performances from his performers. Kudos certainly need to go to Gabourey 'Gabby' Sidibe who makes her acting debut in the lead role and creates a completely credible character for whom anyone with a heart can clearly sympathize.

Paula Patton is quite good as the caring teacher and Mariah Carey surprises as the social worker, not only by appearing quite different from her normal glam look (some might not even recognize her, which could also hold true for fellow singer Lenny Kravitz as a male nurse), but also making one forget past acting fiascos such as occurred with "Glitter." Everyone feels organic to their roles and that leads to completely credible authenticity.

The biggest surprise, however, belongs to Mo'Nique who plays the despicable antagonist, Mary. Ranking up their with the "best" worst mother characters ever to burn up the screen, the actress and comedienne completely transforms herself into an unforgettable domestic monster.

Beyond adding just enough nuances to avoid having her character fall into a cinematic stereotype of such a bad parent, Mo'Nique nails the part in her last scene where and when she finally lets her callous guard down enough to reveal a human still left inside the domestic tyrant. She certainly has a lock on award nominations and will likely be taking home plenty of statuettes for her tremendous work.

Clearly not for all audiences, the film is a powerful statement about how people can persevere despite life stacking the odds against them. Perhaps the pic also could have been titled "Phoenix" for the teen's ability to rise above the ashes of her near-completely burned down life, but I'll take the awkward title any day if the writing, directing and performances deliver, as they do to a considerable degree here. "Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire" rates as an 8 out of 10.

Reviewed October 19, 2009 / Posted November 13, 2009

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