It seems that every year one film arrives on the film festival circuit and makes a monumental splash. Last year it was Slumdog Millionaire, which went on to scoop eight Oscars; this year, it is Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. Thanks to that mouthful of a title, the movie is generally being referred to as Precious, which is the name of the central character in the story, played by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe. Directed by Lee Daniels, who is best known for producing Monster's Ball and The Woodsman, Precious won the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in January, under the title of Push. The name change is a touchy subject with the flamboyant director, mostly because it was forced on him as a result of the Paul Mcguigan-directed sci-fi drama that came out earlier this year bearing the same name. "Let's not talk about that other film," Daniels says.
However, the 49-year-old filmmaker does not hide the marketing rationale behind the new official title, either. "I wanted to make sure that people knew that it was based on a book by Sapphire," he explains. Luckily, the truth is that Precious is so visually arresting that it would win awards and plaudits across the globe regardless of the choice of title. Last month it won the People's Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival (the same prize won by Slumdog Millionaire last year) and it is already being talked of as an Academy Award contender. It also received a standing ovation at the Cannes and San Sebastian film festivals, and is set to play at MEIFF as part of the World Cinema Showcase today and on Thursday.
The beauty of the film is its balance of risky subject matter, superlative images, reminiscent of the great Wong Kar Wai, and brilliant performances, including a surprising turn from Mariah Carey, who is almost unrecognisable as the social worker Mrs Weiss. Set in Harlem in 1987, Precious tells the story of an overweight teenager who dreams of a life as a superstar singer, more as a way of forgetting the troubles and abuse she faces at home than with any sincere hope of fame. To top it off she is the mother of a young child. Her life could not be more miserable, yet Precious refuses to give up, finding a kind of redemption in literature. The film is packed with so many events and issues that, in the wrong hands, it could have turned into a melodramatic movie of the-week. In Daniels, who only made his directing debut in 2005 with Shadowboxer, the story has found a director able to bring out the inner thoughts of its central character in a visceral and enthralling manner.
When I tell him that it reminded me of the work of Wong Kar Wai, Daniels replies: "He is a friend. I love his work. He is an inspiration to me in all my work. It's interesting you say that, and thank you for saying that. The hallway shot of Paula Patton and Gabby turning around and looking at her was very Wong Kar Wai. I did it as a homage to him." Despite the eclectic range of influences and the expressive, poetic narrative that runs throughout the film, there is something unmistakably American about the movie. It is a tale that suits the surroundings and the sensibility of its period: a time when Aids was the big story in New York. Daniels knows that time and place better than most, as he was a figure in the city's 1980s art scene, mixing with luminaries such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and living the kind of life that is synonymous with the Big Apple at that time.
Remembering his youth, he says: "My mother and father were separated, so I had to go back and forth between Harlem and Philadelphia. But to capture the era, I gave all my actors Paris is Burning [Jennifer Livingstone's 1990 documentary], which is sort of how I grew up in the 1980s." The real revelation, though, is the film's young star. Sidibe's presence is larger than life and, thanks to her very appearance, the film cleverly pokes fun at the uniform aesthetic of the entertainment industry.
Paula Patton who plays the English teacher who inspires the young student to write, says of the first-time actress: "Gabby is a prodigy. She truly is. She speaks with a high voice and is a girlie girl. She is so much fun. I remember that when I was cast for the film, the role of Precious was still not cast, and Lee was saying that if we didn't find the right girl there wouldn't be a movie. He sent me the audition tape of Gabby and I felt like I'd been blown away. She was that good. Then I met with her and was shocked to see that she was just an ordinary girl and not like Precious at all. It was such a testament to the job that she's done."
It is a truly mesmerising performance. So too is that of the comic Mo'Nique, who picked up an acting prize at Sundance for her portrayal of Precious's mother, who blames the young girl for all the many wrongs taking place in the family's home. For Sidibe, plucked from obscurity after going to an open audition in New York on a whim, these were some of the hardest scenes to film. "The mother and daughter are enemies in the story," Sidibe says. "I love Mo'Nique. She has so much love and it was difficult for her to be such a monster. Before and after each take she would hug me and we would joke around. I mean, when the camera was rolling and action was called we were fighting and it was very intense - I hated her and she hated me in that moment. However, Mo'Nique was so full of love, it meant there was always a dividing line between being Precious and being Gabby."
One of the most surprising elements of the film is the appearance of the superstar singer Mariah Carey as a plain-Jane social worker. She is unrecognisable from her usual glamour queen persona. She wears no make-up in the film and wore patches to make it look like she has bags under her eyes. The process of dressing down was something that the singer found difficult, but ultimately rewarding. "It was tough, to be honest," she explains. "Music videos are so different with the fabulous costumes and the angles and stuff like that. Also we were filming in a fluorescent dentist's office and it was the worst-lit scene of the movie - over-lighting and dark stuff on my eyes to make me look bad- Lee caught me trying to put blush on, he was like, 'What are you doing?' I guess that now I'll feel better about myself when I'm dressed normally and without make-up and walk past a mirror in my house. I'll be like- well, I've looked worse."
Carey is a friend of Daniels, yet was still surprised that the director gave her the call to appear in the adaptation of one of her favourite books. It is just another example of the brave and inspired decisions that the New Yorker continually makes in this audacious picture. The singer Lenny Kravitz also appears in a small but pivotal role. It feels like a supreme understatement when Daniels says: "I think that when you make a film that is as bold as this, you have to be very bold in your casting choices. I wanted Mariah and Lenny to reveal on screen what I see when I'm in their homes. I wanted to show what they are like on the inside."
It seems odd that Daniels would be so enamoured by what is on the surface a woman's story. The film has received high praise from Oprah Winfrey, a perfect match given her penchant for discussing difficult issues in an accessible and palatable manner. However, Daniels doesn't consider anything strange about identifying with female characters. "It is my experience," he says. "I grew up in a house with women. My father died when I was 13. Most men have a little bit of Precious in us. We want to be better. The film is also about illiteracy and abuse. It just happens that the main character is a girl. This goes beyond a woman's story."
Still, the biggest story might be the discovery of Sidibe. Already she seems immune to the propensity in Hollywood to exaggerate a story. She even jokes that Daniels would have preferred her to have a grittier backstory and sometimes says that he discovered her in a cardboard box in Harlem. The truth, though, is that she is from a warm and loving household. However, what is most striking is the young actor's ability to intelligently decipher what has made Precious such a success: "I have been ignored and neglected in my life in a lot of different ways. Everyone has. Precious is a story of neglect, which is something everyone can understand."
Fine acting, great cinematography, and a unique aesthetic, they're all ingredients that make it almost a certainty that come Oscar time, Precious will, at the very least, receive a nomination for Best Film. Precious is showing at Cinestar 4, Marina Mall today at 6.30pm and Thursday at 9.15pm.