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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe finds a believer in teacher Paula Patton.
It’s not that difficult to make a hard-hitting movie. Show the audience some characters in great despair, and there’s a certain knee-jerk sympathy to be had, even if the rest of the film is only mediocre. To make a movie that is hard-hitting yet also uplifting is far more complicated. This is why Precious is so worthy of celebration. You’ll not find a 2009 movie with a character more in despair than the one we follow here, yet the picture is far from depressing. Without a trace of fake sentiment, director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher show us how a young girl begins the process of overcoming the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in front of her, when most people would reasonably just give up.

Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe (in the performance of the year) plays Clareece “Precious” Jones, a 16 year-old who is pregnant with her second child, conceived while being sexually abused by her own now-absent father. Precious is overweight and illiterate, with an abusive mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), who blames her daughter for the incest. She also actively discourages Precious from getting an education, admonishing her to get down to the welfare office instead.

Going against her mother’s wishes, Precious enrolls in a special “Each One Reach One” school, where she falls under the influence of Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), a sympathetic teacher who sees the girl’s potential. The problem is getting Precious to see that potential in herself; she’s quick to daydream about glamour and stardom, but just as quick to stonewall a social worker (the almost-unrecognizable Mariah Carey) who offers a hand to help. Slowly, though, her confidence begins to grow and see starts to see through her mother’s incessant dysfunction. Precious isn’t sure a girl like her can ever break out of such a bad situation, but she knows that not trying will condemn her to life just like Mary’s.

This is a difficult film to watch at times. The scenes between Precious and Mary are heartbreaking. It would be difficult to say whether the physical or the mental abuse is worse. Either way, it’s clear Precious doesn’t deserve it. Her mother refuses to be accountable for herself, and so she puts the blame on her daughter. There’s a very raw quality to these scenes. At times, you almost feel like you are eavesdropping. The movie doesn’t shy away from showing abuse at its most insidious. Many films that deal with the subject are a little heavy-handed; the abuse is shown simply as a way to get us to empathize with one character and/or to loathe another. Precious, on the other hand, takes it to a deeper level, exploring the way it becomes like an infection that won’t stop spreading. The most horrific of moments comes when Mary flat-out accuses Precious of “stealing my man” (a.k.a. the girl’s own father). It is not rational thought for a mother to blame her daughter for her husband’s incest. Such a thing can only come about when abuse starts to take on a life of its own, so that the abused becomes the scapegoat for anything and everything.

Despite all her academic setbacks, school is a refuge for Precious, and the film effectively contrasts between the classroom and her home. Home is a dead end, with a beating constantly awaiting. School is a place of possibility, with a teacher who is nurturing and other students who are supportive, probably because they are experiencing something similar. We watch as Precious slowly begins to realize that she doesn’t have to be trapped in her own life. She may not ever fulfill her daydreams, but that doesn’t mean something better isn’t out there. You won’t find a single grandiose speech or platitude here. Perhaps the thing I admired most about Precious is that it’s so observant, allowing us to just take in this girl’s life and watch as the wheels turn inside her mind.

What a find Gabourey Sidibe is. This young actress, making her screen debut, gives the kind of nuanced performance you’d expect from a veteran. She shows all sides of Precious: the insecurity, the vulnerability, the stubbornness, the unafraid-to-dream. It’s a remarkably rich piece of acting. You come to care deeply about this girl. Sometimes casting an unknown is good because the audience has no preconceived notions about that person. Sidibe has that going for her, but also the ability to disappear into the character so that we forget we’re watching fiction. Precious feels quite real to us.

The supporting performances are just as note-perfect. Mo’Nique is a revelation. I’ve never been much of a fan. In other movies, she’s been typecast as a sassy woman who constantly flings one-liners. One can hardly believe this is the same actress. She turns Mary into a fountain of rage, directed inward but then projected onto everyone else. Mo’Nique creates one of the most truly despicable movie characters in some time without ever turning Mary into a monster. Through it all, we see the humanity in her, buried beneath a lot of bad decisions and self-rationalizations.

Paula Patton, meanwhile, avoids the “inspirational teacher” clichés, making Ms. Rain tough yet compassionate. Because she believes in Precious, the girl starts to think she can believe in herself. And Mariah Carey? Who ever would have thought she – one of the most glamorous and (let’s face it) exhibitionist celebs of the modern era – could ever effectively portray a dowdy social worker? Not only does she do it, Carey also captures the kind of no-nonsense attitude seen-it-all social workers often have. In the movie’s show-stopping scene, she refuses to back down to Mary during an intense confrontation.

It’s worth noting that Precious, as dark as it is, never becomes too dark. There’s a surprising amount of humor here. Also, you will come to love this girl. A good feeling washes over you as she starts to think that she might just find her way in life. Sure, the movie can be tough to watch, but it is totally worth it. When dealing with this subject matter, there is always a threat of tipping over into melodrama or forced inspiration (or both). Precious never once makes a false move. Beautifully and effectively crafted in every single way, the film looks unflinchingly into desperate lives and finds hope amidst the despair. The desperation will shake you to the core, but the hope will send you away remembering that, with enough gumption, anyone can rise above their circumstance. This is truly a masterpiece of slice-of-life storytelling.

( out of four)

Precious is rated R for for child abuse, including sexual assault, and pervasive language. The running time is 1 hour and 49 minutes.

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