Cinema have produced some memorably bad mothers — Faye Dunaway’s wire-hanger-wielding Joan Crawford in “Mommie Dearest” springs to mind — but I’m hard-pressed to think of a meaner mom in movie history than Mary, from director Lee Daniels’ “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” a hateful, bitter woman who manages to be the most abusive parent in a family where the father has sired two children with his own daughter. This mortal-lock-for-an-Oscar-nomination of a performance comes from Mo’Nique, the comedienne who I previously knew best as the host of a reality television show that placed her name in tandem with the phrase “fat camp.” After the accolades she rightfully deserves for “Precious” start coming her way, she won’t be hosting any new seasons of that series anytime soon.
Mary lives with her daughter Precious (Gabourey Sidibe), who she openly despises and treats like a servant. Precious has a natural talent for math, but an educational system more concerned with standardized test scores than actual learning and a mother who routinely tells her she should have been aborted have conspired to turn her into a 16-year-old illiterate teenage mother. When Precious gets the opportunity to move to a charter school that might address her special needs, Mary is unimpressed. “School ain’t gonna help me! Take your ass to welfare!” she tells her. Against her mother’s wishes, Precious tries the new school, and begins to flourish, setting up an even larger struggle with her tyrannical parent.
Daniels’ visual flourishes — hyperbolic montages of Precious’ suffering, composite shots that place her in a classroom with Martin Luther King, Jr. and others — tend to subtract from rather than add to the story. And at times, the amount of horror visited upon the title character borders on cartoonish; there are enough big issues tackled, from child molestation to teen pregnancy to poverty to illiteracy to abusive parenting to the flaws of the “No Child Left Behind” system to fill the Lifetime Movie Network for a month. But there’s no denying Daniels’ superb work in coaxing good performances from stars like Mo’Nique, who are not (yet) known for their acting chops. The cast list reads like it were cravenly assembled to generate publicity for an indie film about decidedly uncommercial subject matter, but all the actors justify their presence as more than simple stunt casting. Mariah Carey plays a social worker in a pleasantly unglittery performance, and Lenny Kravitz is appealingly laconic and borderline unrecognizable as an empathetic nurse. Though the material veers toward melodrama, Daniels’ touch is surprisingly authentic; the scenes critiquing America’s inner city education system ring completely true to the stories I’ve heard from my wife about her own experiences teaching in similar situations.
First-time actress Sidibe has a very tough role: a lifetime of disappointments has hardened Precious’ exterior, but Sidibe has to also show us frustration simmering beneath her superficial stoicism. Still, it’s Mo’Nique’s performance that stays with you. And it’s more than just blustery anger — her powerful final monologue, delivered in long takes while the camera remains locked on her in close-up, reveals Mary as a pitiful soul trying not to lose control of the one thing in her life over which she has any power. Mo’Nique’s fiery, touching performance makes us reconsider our preconceptions about the character, not to mention about her as an actress.
You wouldn’t expect “Precious” to share a lot in common with a documentary about the most valuable private art collection in the world. But, like “Precious,” Don Argott’s “The Art of the Steal” is, at its core, a story about loss of control. The film documents the decades long battle for control of The Barnes Foundation and its horde of Renoirs, Picassos, van Goghs and more. Once the sole property of a liberal vaccine baron from Philadelphia during the early 20th century, the art now belongs to a trust whose commitment to maintaining the collection as part of a private educational institution instead of as a public museum is slowly eroded by greedy outside interests who want to move the collection from an old building in the suburbs of Philly to the downtown area where it could generate far more tourism money for the city.