New York Film Festival, Part 4: Mother and Precious

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Let this correspondent temper the choral praise for Lee Daniels’ — ahem, Tyler Perry and Oprah’s — Precious. It’s certainly not a total letdown (not with lead performances as immediate and crackerjack as that), but it’s also not the Great Urban Hope that so many have purported it to be. Indeed, the subject matter pulverizes the proverbial envelope — with incest, rape, poverty, illiteracy, teen pregnancy, and child abuse all saddled on the obese, African-American heroine Precious — but each misery is strung up to be drip-dried until the melodrama’s last turn of screw. The best parts, alas, are probably in the trailer.

Based on Sapphire’s best-selling novel, the film takes place in 1987 Harlem. Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is an unhealthy 16, pregnant with her second child (both courtesy of a sick stepfather gone AWOL), and has been booted from school as a result. At her dim and cramped home, she slaves away in the kitchen for welfare-dependent mom Mary (Mo’Nique), who she calls ma’am and who hurls verbal abuse at Precious as if she were the perpetually turned-on TV. These tirades are often punctuated with a fist, pan, or flying object. This early parade of quelle-horreur offers rallying points for the audience, sure, but it also makes Precious a symbol that we can feel sympathy for rather than empathize with.

Then arrives the brief light: against Mary’s wishes, Precious enrolls at Each One Teach One, an “alternative” school for literacy that’s matriculated by outsider “types,” from the narcissistic smart-aleck to the accented immigrant. Here, under the supportive tutelage of Blu Rain (Paula Patton), and a daily routine of journal-keeping, Precious matures, leaves home, and comes into her own. Rest assured, though, more devastation is visited upon Precious, including a last confrontation with Mary that’s mediated by little-used social worker Mariah Carey (in a fine turn, faint mustache and all).

Precious will surely leave you shocked, but ultimately hollow since our heroine’s self-made clean slate is of less importance to Daniels than the harshness from which she rose. He thrives on the pitiable. So as she learns and improves her life, there’s little sense of an authentic turnaround except a rather generic montage and the most facile scene in the film — a classroom in which the history of empowerment is green-screened on all walls. But enough with the bad; the film does best when Daniels quits his visual tics and just allows the actors to act, especially since two performances are worthy of plaudits.

First and foremost is comedienne/reality-show personality Mo’Nique as the most self-centered, insane, and abusive mother ever caught on celluloid, one who will beat the sheesh out of you if you endanger her welfare check — in retrospect, she’d be filthy rich if she just kept a swear jar. And, Sidibe delivers a heartfelt debut, hitting a truly crazy range of emotions as her character goes through the loops. At that, the pain and, later, pride spied in her eyes should pay off: Precious’ dream of red carpets has a chance at materializing come February’s Oscars.

The title character in Bong Joon-ho’s bewildering and often brilliant whodunit Mother is the opposite of Mo’Nique, but no less cuckoo beneath the loving facade. Unnamed and exquisitely played by Kim Hye-ja (an actress who has spent decades in Korean minds as the TV mother), she coddles her unpredictable idiot of a son as if he were 7 — they eat and even sleep beside each other. Except Do-Joon (Won Bin) is 27 and before you can cry “Uh, Norman Bates?,” he’s charged with the brutal murder of a poor high-school floozy. The incompetent authorities shut the case, tout court, after discovering a rather incriminating clue at the scene.

From thereon out, his apothecary mother — with maternal instinct in overdrive — devotes herself to a town-wide probe to exonerate her son and thus herself, since she’s the one who impressed the mantra of self-protection at all costs. After a few suspenseful dead ends, her sleuthing comes upon a Pandora’s Box of recessed secrets, which crescendos in a double-whammy that we won’t muck up here.

From the first to last scene — both featuring the mother dancing like a possessed marionette — Bong pulls the audience’s strings with a nimble, precise hand. His now-famous compositional polish keeps the story fluent even as it cuts between the psychotic and slapstick elements, the melodrama and policier genres. And with the diehard aegis of this mother as the core focus, Bong and Kim have crafted an indelible character (perhaps the best in Bong’s gallery thus far) that, after all is said and done, remains off in her own little heaven.