Warning: Major spoilers ahead
I loved the movie Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire because it told me two moving stories at once.
The film's first story is about Precious herself, a character whose endlessly miserable life is like something out of The Trojan Women: When she's not getting raped and impregnated by her father, she's getting sexually, physically, and verbally abused by her mother Mary (Mo'Nique.) She even gets pushed around by strangers on the street.
I found myself rooting for Precious, caring for her, right away. That's partly because of Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe's crazy-magical acting. Even though Precious guards herself by shutting down whenever her mother is around, we can always see what's crackling beneath the girl's surface. We can see that she still has the capacity for happiness and tenderness and love, even if she doesn't have an outlet for them.
Precious' inner life is expanded by director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher, who add fantasy sequences that aren't in Sapphire's novel. While Precious is getting raped, for instance, she imagines herself at a movie premiere. When her mother is viciously forcing her to overeat, Precious imagines she's in a Sofia Loren movie, where her mother treats her like she's a countess.
These scenes are stirring because they show us the Precious that wants to be born. Buried inside her miserable life, there's a sweet, thoughtful, poetic young woman, and when the movie cuts back to the world where she's forced to live, the brief vision of her imagination has made her reality even harder to watch.
But that's not what breaks my heart. What really gets me---what has got me tearing up right now, frankly---are the little ways Precious does try to bring her fantasy life into reality. There's this one scene where Precious leaves the house to go to an alternative school---she's been kicked out of her regular school---and before she goes, she carefully matches her headband to her t-shirt.
In other words, she makes an effort to look nice before strolling through the battlefield. Daniels heavily underlines the bleakness of Harlem, and that sense of hopelessness knocks me back like a stench. And yet here's Precious, the most pitiful case in a pitiful world, still caring enough to look cute.
As much as any fantasy sequence, that gesture reveals the girl inside the shell. You don't dress up unless you hope that someone will see you. Unless you want to be seen. Once she put that headband on, I wanted to run into the movie, tell Precious she was beautiful, and then take her out of there. I wanted to save her because she was still trying to save herself.
And that's the thrust of the "Precious story:" A girl who has no reason to live keeps finding reasons to live. She gets stomped and stomped and stomped, but she still goes to an alternative school that will help her learn to read and write; she still does sweet things for her baby; and she still tries to make friends.
If this were Slumdog Millionaire, that kind of resilience would send Precious to a better life. But this isn't Slumdog Millionaire. At the climax of the film, we learn that Precious's father has died of HIV. Her baby doesn't have it, but Precious does.
So for all her imagination and spark, Precious is going to die. (For a poor black woman in Harlem in 1987, HIV was a death sentence.) All that work she's doing, and she cannot save herself. The Precious story doesn't end with hope---with the dream of our heroine's future---because our heroine has no future. All she can do is live her final days with as much happiness and dignity as possible.
But there is hope in this film. It's in the "system story."
To paraphrase Roger Ebert's review, the film's hope comes from alternative school teacher Blu Rain (Paula Patton) and from social worker Mrs. Weiss (Mariah Carey), both of whom see Precious' terrible life and want to help her.
Both of these women are part of a system of social aid, and in this movie, that system stops the long, terrible cycle in Precious' family. First, in the form of Ms. Rain's class, it teaches Precious that she doesn't have to be part of the abusive legacy anymore---that she can love herself. Then, in a breathtaking scene in Mrs. Weiss' office, the system gets Mary to explain why she's so terrible, which seems to make Mary feel some empathy for her daughter. And then, in one of the last moments of the film, Precious tells her mother that's she's never coming home. She takes her newborn baby and she leaves.
That's where the system really works. It's too late for Precious, but because of the system's support, she takes an action that might free her son from his mother's miserable fate. She sets him on a path toward self-confidence and love.
That reminds me of the end of the Oresteia, when the Furies become the Eumenides. No one can raise the Greeks who have died, but the people can take mournful comfort in knowing that it doesn't have to be this way anymore. Precious doesn't get a happy ending, but as she heads toward her own death, she can know that a happy ending may be possible for her child.
Of course, Precious takes place in 1987. We can go to Harlem right now and see that there are still plenty of people who suffer there. So what should we do about it? Should we pump our energy into the systems that try to help the poor and abused? Maybe we should. Maybe we can spare the next generation from the fate that befell their ancestors. Precious, at least, encourages us to try.
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