The best thing about going to a film festival is the ability to be
really surprised and discover something you may have never otherwise
noticed. I certainly would never have bothered with a movie starring
Mo’Nique, Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz based on a novel by an author
with a solitary name if it wasn’t for the slow buzz building off of the
film’s premiere. Bolstered by word of mouth, I went in to the press
screening of Push: Based on the Novel By Sapphire (I’m not sure if this
is the official title of the movie or what it’s going by at the fest to
mark it different from the upcoming X-Menish superhero movie) and was
enthralled by a moving, touching and darkly effective film.

The point of comparison that keeps coming to me is The Wire season
four. Like that season of the classic HBO series, Push looks at the
roots of why inner city children seem unable to get out of the world
into which they were born. Clareece ‘Precious’ Jones is 16, can’t read,
is hugely obese, lives in the ghetto and is about to have her second
child brought on by her father’s continued rapes. She lives in 1987
Harlem, where a deteriorated school system and a community drowning in
crime, ignorance and drug abuse have failed her. Just when all hope
seems lost for Precious, she gets into an alternative school program
where she’ll learn to read and most importantly, to write – the act of
putting her thoughts down in a journal and being accepted by her new
teacher and fellow students has a profound change on her self esteem
and every other aspect of her life.

That sounds like the makings of a simple afterschool special, but
that’s just the start of Push. The film is not afraid to drop bad thing
after bad thing on its heroine, and by proxy us. I don’t know that I’ve
felt as emotionally battered by a film in a long time, but Push isn’t
just about making you cry (although it will do that);  it’s a probing
look inside the cycles of abuse – institutional, sexual, physical,
self-inflicted – that keep people down. And while the movie’s angle is
on urban black girls, there’s a universality to it that transcends.
When Precious looks in the mirror and sees a pretty, thin, blonde white
girl I understand the feeling (and this isn’t my confession of
cross-dressing), and it’s a feeling that anyone who has ever looked at
themselves in a mirror and wished they were seeing something different
will understand.

While Push presents an unflinching look at these cycles (and more than
once you will wish this film would just flinch – it’s got levels of
domestic turbulence that makes look Raging Bull like a Veggie Tales
movie), it also shows the flip side. The entire story is essentially an
ode to self-expression, and Precious herself narrates it, presumably
from the journals she keeps. The film does a wonderful job of building
this aspect up and not having Precious suddenly stand and deliver a
speech about how much she’s changed or something. The change is shown,
not told.

A huge amount of the credit must go to newbie Gabourey Sidibe, who
plays Precious. Her performance is so thorough, so all-encompassing, so
natural, that a fantasy sequence where she’s not talking like a mumbly
ghetto girl is actually shocking. There’s one scene at the end where a
teary-eyed Precious gets a little too poetic and speechtastic for the
character, but Sidibe makes it work. She sells every moment of pain and
self-doubt and self-loathing with bottomless sincerity and truth. It’s
a stunning debut.

Also stunning: Mo’Nique. I shit you not. As Precious’ welfare cheating
mother Mo’Nique essays one of the greatest bad moms in cinema history.
She makes Joan Crawford look like Ma from Little House. The character
is mean, nasty, violent, lazy and ugly – physically ugly in a way that
must have taken a lot of courage on the part of Mo’nique. What I really
appreciated about Mo’Nique’s performance was not only how rotten she
was willing to go but how she maintained that even during a big
emotional scene where we get to understand why she is the way she is.
Mo’Nique lays the character bare for us but never begs for us to feel
bad for her or to change our opinion of her. The actress – and the film
– knows that understanding isn’t the same as accepting. Were Mo’Nique
(and Sidibe) to be nominated for Oscars in 2010 I wouldn’t imagine
raising a stink. I wouldn’t imagine raising anything but a glass in
their direction for two performances that shatter with their honesty.

The rest of the cast performs just as strongly. Before this morning I
had written Paula Patton (Mirrors, Hitch) off completely as an actress.
But Push shows that, given the right material, Patton can be luminously
beautiful and emotionally vivid. Lenny Kravitz was so good in his small
but important role as Nurse John that I didn’t even realize it was him
until the end credits; I knew Kravitz was in the film, and this was the
only male character of any size, but I just couldn’t put two and two
together to equal Lenny. Mariah Carey also sidesteps the make-up brush
to play a social worker; she’s pretty good in the role, but sadly most
of the attention will go to just how different she looks without a
stylist. It is, to be honest, amazing.

While feeling a little long (probably due to the sheer amount of shit
flung at Precious throughout the film’s not-excessive-on-paper running
time), Push never bores and keeps you riveted and invested in this
character as she faces obstacles in life that would destroy me. The
specificity of this story led me to believe that novelist Sapphire must
have been coming from an autobiographical place – it turns out that’s
just not the case. And director Lee Daniels, who made his debut with
the drubbed Shadowboxer – shows that he has a compassion and
understanding (and an overdeveloped love for post-production slomo) for
these characters and their travails.

Push is gritty and sometimes ugly, and while it never falls into the
tropes of uplifting message movies, it does offer more than a shred of
optimism at the end. The cycle can be broken and there can be hope. But
the movie is honest: that hope isn’t easy to find, and it comes at a
price. Push is a tough movie, but it might also be a great one.