Monday, November 23, 2009

REVIEW(S): Precious/An Education

When I watch movies, I frequently theme them. I'll go on "kicks" for a certain actor or director or series and watch several films of a certain kind in a row. For instance, just this past weekend, I watched Peter Bogdonovich's Paper Moon and Nickelodeon, both 1970s films starring Ryan and Tatum O'Neal (reviews forthcoming).

When I went to the movies on Sunday, I didn't have a theme in mind when I watched Precious and An Education back to back - they just happened to open in Dayton this weekend. Although the movies are very different in tone and style, both are coming-of-age tales and literary adaptations whose protagonists learn some very hard lessons. Both feature breakout performances that are Oscar worthy - and both pictures are excellent.

Precious, based on the acclaimed novel by Sapphire, centers around a teenager who have what may be the single most hellish family life I've ever seen in a movie. Almost illiterate, Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) is sullen and withdrawn. She barely speaks and seems to have a mask of depression fixed to her face. 

It's no small wonder why. Constantly belittled by her angry, resentful mother (Mo'Nique) Precious has one child with Down syndrome and she's pregnant with her second child - both of which are borne from an ugly, incestuous relationship with her father.

And yet, even amid such dire trappings, Precious' life is not completely hopeless. She excels in math, and her educators send her to an alternative school. They come to care for her, sensing a beautiful soul buried under layers of abuse and pain.  But every time Precious finds some ray of light, some new setback douses it. Parts of the film are utterly heartbreaking, and even punishing to witness.

That's why I found some of director Lee Daniels' visual flourishes distracting. A few fantasy sequences, in which Precious imagines a happier life,  occasionally pulled me out of the story. That they're out of sync with Precious' grim reality is part of the point, I suppose, but the sequences are so florid, they're jarring. Quite honestly, Precious' life is so downtrodden, it's hard to see how she can even envision such a fantasy at all.

And yet, I hung on because Precious hung on. I rooted for her. I sympathized with her. I cheered for her when she pulled herself up, and felt crushed when life kicked her back down. That's due primarily to Sidibe's amazingly intuitive performance, which is all the more remarkable because it's her debut. Even so, she totally inhabits the character, never seeming affected for a second. I wasn't watching an actor, I was watching a girl live and breathe.

Credit must also go to Mo'Nique for creating an unflinching portrayal of such a despicable character. Precious' mom may be a monster, but Mo'Nique never takes the easy way out, playing her character as a one-dimensional cretin. She explains the mother without ever excusing her. It's a fine line to walk, but Mo'Nique never falters.

Some will tell you Precious is depressing and sad. They're not altogether wrong. But there is hope to be found. Precious endures because I endured with Precious.


In An Education, Jenny (Carey Mulligan) learns some hard life lessons too, although hers travel down another path - the precarious path of romance.

It's very tempting to call Jenny "wise beyond her years," and indeed, she projects a certain self-confidence and an easygoing manner. She's bright, talented and beautiful, and she knows what she wants out of life - until  David (Peter Sarsgaard) drives into it.

David, who is more than twice her age, professes himself to be a music lover, and in a great meet-cute, gives Jenny's cello shelter from the rain in his car while Jenny hurries alongside it.
It doesn't take a genius to guess that there's more to David than meets Jenny's batting eyes,  but it also doesn't take a genius to guess why David charms Jenny.  She sees him as a worldly, exciting alternative to the seemingly conventional and stifling college life her parents have planned for her.

And it's also very easy to understand the effusive praise for Mulligan. To paraphrase Thelma Ritter in Rear Window, Carey Mulligan is the right actor for any filmmaker with a brain who can get one eye open. People have compared her to Audrey Hepburn, and that's not unwarranted.  When Mulligan steps out for a night on the town in a great short-sleeved dress, I repeated a line from Jerry Maguire in my head: "That's not a dress, that's an Audrey Hepburn movie."

And it's not just the Hepburn look that Mulligan captures. I don't mean to suggest that Mulligan is Audrey's equal yet, but Mulligan captures the same sort of effortless charm and guilelessness Hepburn wielded. The cast on the whole is uni formally solid; Alfred Molina particularly stands out as Jenny's critical but well-meaning father.

An Education also increased my admiration for writer Nick Hornby. A number of his novels, like High Fidelity and About a Boy,  have been adapted into great movies, but this is the first time he has written a screenplay, adapting a memoir by Lynn Barber. Hornby's writing is witty and sharply observed - even when the characters make foolish choices, they seem like the right ones because they're so vulnerable and human.

Even better, the film has a number of great little touches that add to its flavor, including a wonderful title sequence that brilliantly sets the tone, and a terrific soundtrack that's so authentic of the early 60s sound, that even the new original songs had me fooled into thinking they were genuine articles.

An Education is filled with different  kinds of charm - some are dangerous, some are delightful - and all are irresistible.


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