Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace

Does the original trilogy justice in terms of heart, action, and fun —Marty Mapes (review...)

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The 32nd annual Denver International Film Festival opened Thursday evening in the Ellie Caulkins Opera House downtown. The bejeweled bigwigs packed the house for a feel-good movie about incest, child abuse, teen pregnancy, poverty, hatred and homelessness.

Hometown producers Gary Magness (son of TCI founder Bill Magness) and Sarah Siegel-Magness (one of Celestial Seasonings’ Mo Siegel’s five children) took a bow before the film rolled, as did a tearfully happy Lee Daniels, director of Precious: based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. The sellout crowd cheered it enthusiastically.

Oppressed but Not Impaired

From my perspective in the cheap seats, the film works. It’s a classic tearjerker, but it’s not a sob story. As per formula, we are taken along on the journey of a young heroine (Gabourey Sibide) who must overcome the overwhelming odds against her. That the heroine is an obese teen ghetto-dwelling African-American girl sparks a lot of kneejerk, politically correct sympathies, as well as a backlash of objections about stereotypes of race and class.

The material is wrenchingly difficult to deal with, but is not as disturbing as more harrowing fare such as Blue Velvet or Tideland. This is basic, naturalistic drama punctuated with flights of fancy that give Sibide a much stronger opportunity to connect with the viewer than many of her suffering predecessors.

Precious is oppressed but not impaired. Her mental acuity gives birth to an inner life that loads her most deadpan line renderings with meaning. Her redemption resides in the unreasoning power of sheer will, which introduces the risk that Precious would come across as a cardboard cutout. But Daniels and Sibide avoid that trap.

Ensemble Acting

Daniels gets the best out of his actors. The stunt casting includes Mariah Carey as an unglamorous social worker, and Lenny Kravitz as a loveable male nurse. That they pulled off their performances without by becoming conscious of their “real” identities is testament to their skill.

The brutalities of Precious’ life are embodied by her mother, a flatly evil character played to perfection by Mo’nique, especially in a closing monologue that will undoubtedly win her the Oscar next year. Villainous roles are both easier and harder to play — they allow the performer to act without restraint, yet tempt them to go past the point of believability. Mo’nique’s flat affect and tenacious selfishness ring true.

Another key to the film’s success is its refusal to take everything down to a simple level of pathos. Take away the bursts of fantasy, and you’ve got the plot of a TV movie of the week. Daniels’ decision to work in depth saves it from that banality. There’s grim humor to spare, and nearly every character is carefully observed and given his/her moment to shine, a generous and inclusive impulse that raises the movie above the ordinary.

Precious Problems

There are problems. The plot grotesquely piles trauma upon trauma (and yes, I know, there are traumatic lives out there for real, but still...), and there are lapses of After-School Special earnestness (Paula Patton is burdened with the role of the inspirational teacher).

Daniels succumbs to the temptations of the Shaky-Cam school of pseudo-documentary realism — when things get intense, the camera begins to shiver as if operated by a late-period Katharine Hepburn. Also, the indomitable spirit shown by Precious pushes aside her life’s difficulties a bit too easily at times.

Still, Precious is meant to inspire and it does. Spiritual progress is measured in tiny inchings forward, and not without the aid of a few people who push themselves to make the right choices. In this, Precious has got it right.

Is it a great film? Don’t know yet. But it’s well worth a trip to the opera house... or even just the local movie theater.