Monday, November 16, 2009

Break on Through to the Other Side: Precious

In the hours following my viewing of the much-hyped film Precious, part three of the Teen Girl Trifecta, I asked myself just why I love YA lit.  Why have I gravitated toward the young adult section in bookstores and libraries since college, way after I was in the target demographic and way before Stephenie Meyer called mainstream attention to the genre (quite possibly the only good thing to come out of the whole Twilight craze)?  And it goes beyond books: why am I, a professional woman with a graduate degree, so drawn to films centering around teenage girls and their self-discoveries?

Is it because I want to recapture that time in my life?  Doubtful: my high school experience was far from horrific, but there's no way in hell I'd go back.  Besides, I'm not one of those people who feels old at almost thirty.  If anything, I feel like there's a world of stuff I still don't know, adventures I still need to embark upon.

Maybe that's my answer.

Several months ago, I read an interview with a YA author.  One quote, in response to the question "why do you write for young adults?", really stuck with me.  The author said something to the effect of: "adult books have a tone of 'look at what I have learned.'  Young adult books, on the other hand, say 'learn with me.'"

And in Precious, that's exactly what the viewer does.

Let me say first that although I was excited to see the film, having read countless articles about its message and about its young breakout star, I was also leery of the hype.  I was worried I'd be Slumdog Millionaire'd all over again.  Yes, I thought last year's Best Picture Oscar winner certainly had merit and contained some amazing performances (particularly from the child and teen actors), but that film left me feeling. . . manipulated.  I thought it was way hokey and overrated.  Because Precious has a realistic, take-no-prisoners storyline, and centers on a young woman's struggle for a better life, I was hoping it would not Slumdog Millionaire me.

And sure, the fantasy sequences bordered on over-the-top, and the shaky camera angles bordered on overkill. 

But overall . . . I learned with Precious.  And so will you.

Plot: overweight, borderline illiterate teenager Claireece "Precious" Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is pregnant with her second child and living with her monstrous mother (Mo'Nique) in Harlem.  When Precious is thrown out of school for her pregnancy, her principal, noticing Precious' aptitude for math, suggests an alternative school.  Encouraged by her even-keeled instructor (Paula Patton) and a concerned welfare officer (a stripped-down Mariah Carey), Precious begins to come to terms with her damaged upbringing and the possibilities that lie beyond it.  But for every step forward, there are two steps back.

Sounds like a Lifetime Original Movie, no?  Here's what sets Precious apart from those crappy Sunday afternoon B-dramas:

1.  The acting.  Stellar on all fronts.  What each performer does right in Precious is keep it simple.  Base.  Raw.  From Sidibe's blank yet haunted protagonist to Lenny Kravitz's no-nonsense nurse, every movement, facial expression and line delivery is straight from the gut, deeply felt, and real.  Yes, I'm including Mariah Carey in this praise.  Props to Mo'Nique for applying a deft touch to an utterly irredeemable character, without being cartoonish.  Not an easy feat by any means, and she pulled it off with the utmost skill.

2.  The brutality.  Precious has a terrible, terrible life, much of which the viewer is privy to.  She may go to a dream world as a survival mechanism, but not before we see the graphic abuse that necessitates such a world.  Beware: several scenes in Precious had me gasping and sobbing, and I didn't cover my eyes during Inglourious Basterds.  I have to give the filmmakers credit, however, for putting out there what most of us like to pretend isn't happening in our own backyard.

3.  The reality.  Without giving anything away, I will say that Precious doesn't tie up all its ends in an empowered, you-go-girl bow.  Precious' existence will continue to be difficult, and complications will increase.  As she is a mother, she has to consider the fate of her children as well.  Even the best support system can't completely eradicate her struggles, or the temptation to avoid them as her mother has, by living off welfare and eating in front of the television in an apartment building frequented by crackheads.  Long after the end credits roll, you will worry for Precious, and hope that she has the strength to move forward on her own.  You will pray that she remembers the advice of her teacher (and one of my favorite quotes): the longest journey begins with a single step.

Throw your support behind this flick, y'all.  It doesn't have the feel-good fantastical elements of Slumdog, but it's a story that needs to be told.  It's flawed, but honest: one of the best examples I've ever witnessed of art imitating life.


  1. Great review. I should see it. I'm a little scared that some of the scenes, combined with the shaky cameras, will make me throw up. But still. The trailer looks amazing.

  2. The shaky cameras aren't TOO bad--I just thought they could have been used more sparingly and therefore more effectively.

    Yeah, the trailer had me in tears, which is rare. The film lives up to it, though.

  3. I've seen and read a ton of reviews on this and I know it must be good. But I have trouble sitting through that much sadness and grief. I used to love it, but I became a mom and something inside me changed. It's too difficult to watch children struggle and to watch growunups being horrible to children.

    Listen, I'm not happy about my new head-in-sand self.

  4. I kind of felt the same way about Slumdog. I liked it more than I thought I would, found it cute, but in places a bit too cute. Plus I'm the only person who had no idea that there were cute Bollywood credits because I turned it off before the credits. The ending was nice, but...I'm leery of happiness, ya know?

    Anyway, Precious looks great and I want to see it myself. Your review is wonderful and makes me want to see it so I can say more about it--unfortunately I haven't had the chance yet, even though I've read a lot about it. I'm planning on seeing it quite soon, though.

  5. Nikki--my mom has the same concerns about the film and has said that as a mother, she hates to watch children mistreated in any situation, even if she knows it's fake. Who knows, if I had kids I might very well feel the same. Totally understandable--I'm just happy you read the blog. :)

    Sadako--re: Slumdog, a friend put it best when she summed up the film as, "Violence. Torture. Child exploitation. But hey, we dance at the end!" I must admit, I'm a sucker for a good dance number, and of course I'm happy to see a film go mainstream that explores not only extreme poverty but also the stories of people of color. That said...I just didn't love the movie.

  6. That was a fantastic review, one of the best I've read of Precious. I can't wait to see it. I also really enjoyed your take on why you still read young adult books. As another non-teenager, your answer has now become my go-to answer ;)

  7. In other news, the book that Precious is based on, Push, came in for me at the library so I'm going to try to read that this week before I go see the film. Have you read it yet, maybeimamazed?

  8. I have not, Sadako. I have the maximum number of books on hold at my library, and because the majority of them are new releases (and one is not out yet), they are taking FOREVER to get to me. I'm also sure that the waiting list for Push is months long, especially since the film's actually in Chicago now.

    Will you let me know what you think?

  9. Will do! It's still not here (I jumped the gun a little), but I got lucky and requested it right when it got popular. If I'd waited another week, I'd be like number 300 which is what the request list is up to now. Too bad they don't let us request like, hundreds of books at once, right?

  10. good to hear your thoughts. because of all the hype, i'm staying away for now, but i'm sure i'll see it soon.

  11. Saw the movie and read Push this week. Both really good. Push is if anything more graphic--it goes into detail about stuff the movie only mentions.

    Also, the Mariah Carey character (Ms. Weiss) comes off different. Like, less sympathetic. Granted, she's not not so different but I don't know, I found myself really liking her in the movie and not so much in the book. The book makes her seem through Precious's eyes just another white person who wants to exploit her. I guess the movie did that too in parts (the part where they read her file which is in both the movie and book) but I just came away with a different impression.

    You should def read it if you get a chance. Harsh, unrelenting book but worth it. Possibly even worth a review on your blog!

  12. I've also heard that the teacher is a little different in the book, though still a very inspiring character. I definitely want to read the book--I was paging through it at Borders the other night and I do believe my jaw dropped open at least once.

    I'll definitely think about reviewing Push on the blog. As always, it's great to hear your thoughts!

  13. Finally saw the movie - it's been in Chambana for a few weeks, but tonight the local rape crisis center was doing a benefit where half the concessions sales were donated to them, so my friends invited me tonight. Overall, I thought it was very good. Hard to watch (definitely was gasping and hiding my face at a few parts), but I'm glad I saw it.

    In some ways, it was different from what I was expecting. I'm not exactly sure what I was expecting - maybe I thought the entire movie was going to be totally brutal (I think I was nervous about seeing it because the trailer alone was intense enough), but I was happy that there was a lot of hope in it as well. I loved the girls in Precious' class - I was so happy to see her with friends and people near her age who were looking out for her. I also found myself encouraging her right along with her teacher when she was trying to read and learn the alphabet.

    I left feeling kind of sad, because you know her life is never going to be easy, but you also know she's strong and now has people behind her to help her through. I'm thinking about reading the book - I read an excerpt in an article and it seems like it's difficult to read, but if it's anything like the movie, it should be worth it.

  14. PS. A critique - I thought some of the symbolism was a bit forced and heavy-handed, but that's the English major in me. And I didn't mind the shaky cam. I kind of like that in some movies (like "The Wrestler," which you should see if you haven't already), because it can make it feel more real if it's done right.

  15. I agree with a lot of your comments. The classroom scenes were among my favorites--I really admire teachers in alternative schools. At times, Blu also had to act as a social worker, and she took it in stride, stayed calm and got the job done. I also really loved Lenny Kravitz's character. He didn't take any shit from Precious, but you could tell he really cared for her.

    Yeah, I see your point about the symbolism, though I did like the red scarf. For me, the shaky cams can feel like the filmmaker's trying too hard to be "real," and I didn't think it was necessary in this film. I definitely felt like it was real, and I was there with Precious.

    Oh, and the Academy better not penalize Mo'Nique for not playing the Hollywood game. She was freaking brilliant. And Gabourey Sidibe needs to be working more. I hear she's going to be on a new HBO series and that makes me happy.