Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Push Precious

Push took top prizes at Sundance 2009 (Grand Jury for Drama, Audience Award and special acting prize for Mo’Nique), but–like a lot of prize winners in the past–it may prove to be too much for regular audiences. During the Q&A after the screening I attended, a girl stood up and said, “I’m from Harlem and I know people like that, but I’ve never seen it on a screen before.” She then thanked director Lee Daniels through her tears and sat down. It was the kind of moment Sundance programmers live for.

This small, risk-taking film does show something that hasn’t been on a screen before, and it eclipses the feel-good-and-give-me-your-money bigger pictures. Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire is a simple story about an uneducated, pregnant girl in Harlem circa 1987. It leaves you a sweaty wad of mixed emotions and defies you to figure you what you’re feeling and why you feel it.

Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) is a sixteen year old girl who lives in hell. She’s morbidly obese and hated wherever she goes, except in her fantasies. (Kind of like Pan’s Labyrinth, but the war torn country Precious escapes is the Harlem ghetto and her fantasy world comes from TV.) It’s a little absurd and supposed to be funny. She has an indomitable wit despite the fact that she carries her father’s second child and her mother (Mo’Nique) is one of the most tragic and despicable villains, maybe, in all of cinema. Precious’ entire life is just a vessel to absorb all the victimization possible from being poor and black and female. Through her hallucinogenic fantasies, her protective sarcasm, and a couple of women who refuse to let her disappear, she inches — and I mean inches — towards prevailing.

If you’re starting to think Stand and Deliver with incest, think again. Precious’ journey is like watching somebody held under water learning to breath through a straw. If Push did not completely absorb you into the world of Precious, it may appear that her victories (like reciting the alphabet from start to finish) are minute, maybe even pathetic, but their monumentality in Precious’ world is visceral. It also helps that every once in a while there’s a fall-down funny joke.

Daniels’ freestyle comedy is what prevents the audience from walking away with PTSD. Shortly after what’s probably the most difficult scene in the movie, Precious is staying with her teacher and her teacher’s lesbian partner and remarks to herself, “They talk like TV channels I don’t watch.” At the screening I attended, the theater fell into fits of laughter, the way a death row inmate might when granted a pardon. When Daniels introduced Push, he encouraged the audience to look at how Precious laughs at what’s thrown at her, and laugh with her. My immediate thought was that his last screening must have been completely morbid and he wanted to lighten this one up. But now I think he may have been prepping us for the real brilliance of the movie. In some way, Precious’ humor creates an even deeper connection for us to her suffering because it makes her suffering more authentic. Isn’t it human nature to find some weird whiff of humor in the darkest hour? Finding a way to make a joke, albeit a dark one, can be the only reason at the end of the day to think tomorrow could be any better.

I know Push has everything going against it. Incest, a cast of “real” characters (even Mariah Carey looks like she’s served time in prison) and a location people don’t want to visit unless they have to, but it has an undeniable authenticity. It definitely pushes what an audience is willing to take. Some will say the waves of tragedy hitting Precious’ life smack of melodrama. Does Push go over the top? I really haven’t decided yet, but there’s that girl in the audience who said it was a spot on depiction of people she knows. I think there are lives which are more broken and sad than anything we’ve seen in movies before. Wrestling with whether or not I’ll allow Preicous’ life be authentic to me is, I think, is exactly what Daniels wants because days after I attended the screening, I still haven’t forgotten her. (source)