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cinemadaily | “Precious” Polarizes

cinemadaily | "Precious" Polarizes

“‘Precious’ is a hybrid, a mash-up that might have been ungainly, but that manages to be graceful instead,” writes the New York Times’ A.O. Scott. “It’s partly a bootstrap drama of resilience and redemption, complete with a hardworking teacher wrangling a classroom full of disadvantaged girls. It’s also the nearly Gothic story of a child tormented by the cruelty of adults, as lurid as a Victorian potboiler or a modern-day tell-all memoir. Above all ‘Precious’ is unabashedly populist in its potent emotional appeal…and at the same time determined to challenge its audience’s complacency as only a genuine work of art can.”

Lee Daniels’ film, which has been garnering mounting buzz–and big-name endorsements from Tyler Perry and Oprah–since it took top honors at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, hits theaters today. The film already has both its passionate defenders and serious detractors. Heading up the latter group is the New York Press’ Armond White. “Not since ‘The Birth of a Nation’ has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as ‘Precious,'” writes White. “Full of brazenly racist clichés (Precious steals and eats an entire bucket of fried chicken), it is a sociological horror show. Offering racist hysteria masquerading as social sensitivity, it’s been acclaimed on the international festival circuit that usually disdains movies about black Americans as somehow inartistic and unworthy.”

The LA Times’ Betsy Sharkey: “A rare blend of pure entertainment and dark social commentary, this shockingly raw, surprisingly irreverent and absolutely unforgettable story of an obese, illiterate, pregnant black Harlem teen circa 1987 is one that you hope will not be dismissed as too difficult, because it should not be missed.”

“‘Precious punishes the audience with scene after scene of squalor and hopelessness, but like last year’s poverty-can-be-entertaining hit ‘Slumdog Millionaire,’ it rewards them for hanging on ’til the end,” notes the A.V. Club’s Noel Murray. “The story follows a predictable underdog-makes-good rhythm, but hits its beats with commendable gusto.”

Time Out New York’s Keith Uhlich: “Given the months-long hype, what’s most bewildering about Sundance sensation ‘Precious’ is its overall shrug-worthiness. You’d think the litany of horrors that befall Harlem teenager Clareece ‘Precious’ Jones (Sidibe)—illiteracy, rape, domestic abuse, Mariah Carey—would register with some piercing and perceptive effect. Instead, they pass by with the glazed-over, lookie-lookie luridness of a ‘Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’ episode.”

“A former casting director, Daniels shows undeniable savoir faire with his actors, a mix of musicians and comedians effectively cast against type, from a dark-haired, deglamorized Mariah Carey as a tough-love social worker to a subtle Lenny Kravitz as an attentive male nurse,” observes Scott Foundas in the Village Voice. “The picture belongs, however, to the gale-force Mo’Nique, who transforms an ostensibly one-note monster mom into a complex portrait of a psychologically damaged woman (no matter that Daniels seems to have edited her most showstopping scene in a blender), and to the magnanimous Sidibe, who carries the alternately exhausting and exhilarating narrative on her formidable shoulders.”

Roger Ebert, who calls “Precious” “a great American film,” writes that it is also “a tribute to Sidibe’s ability to engage our empathy. Her work is still another demonstration of the mystery of some actors, who evoke feelings in ways beyond words and techniques. She so completely creates the Precious character that you rather wonder if she’s very much like her. You meet Sidibe, who is engaging, outgoing and 10 years older than her character, and you’re almost startled. She’s not at all like Precious, but in her first performance, she not only understands this character but knows how to make her attract the sympathy of her teacher, the social worker — and ourselves. I don’t know how she does it but there you are.”

Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek writes that “the performances are so plainspoken and direct that they manage to push the material beyond the confines of a mere social-problem tract — as played by the cast, these characters aren’t symbols of inner-city hardship, but people.”

New York Magazine’s David Edelstein: “The elements of Precious are powerful and shocking, but the movie is programmed. It is its own study guide.”

“The film’s source material, Sapphire’s much-hyped novel from 1996, is a rough piece of literary craft, but it puts readers through the wringer,” writes Andrew Chan. “Written in the barely grammatical language of the illiterate protagonist, the book is a constant struggle for expression, and the reader is forced to work almost as hard as Precious in gaining access to her emotional world. Translating this into a relatively conventional style, Daniels has no way of replicating the authority of that first-person speaker, and when he tries by having actress Gabourney Sidibe narrate on the voice-over, there is no sense of her wrestling with language. The film has inevitably opened the book up, locating the action outside of Precious’s psyche, and thereby reducing our intimacy with her.”

More reviews from New Yorker, Slate, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Entertainment Weekly, and Slant Magazine.

indieWIRE has interviews with both Daniels and Sidibe.

Watch the trailer for “Precious” on YouTube.

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