published Monday, February 22nd, 2010

New actress makes dazzling debut in “Precious”

It is in no way original to call Gabourey Sidibe the Cinderella of the 2010 awards season. It is also in no way unjustified.

Ms. Sidibe, 26, made her acting debut as the title character of “Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire” in 2009 and has been nominated for upward of 20 awards for her work, including an Oscar for best leading actress. The praise is more than deserved.

As Claireece “Precious” Jones, Sidibe plays an illiterate teenager, obese and ostracized by neighborhood kids, pregnant with her second child by her father, living with her abusive mother, desperate to find a foothold. Watching the hell that is this girl’s life (and there’s really no other way to describe it) is heartbreaking.

Director Lee Daniels uses dark palettes and low lighting to show the depressive nature of Precious’s environment. The mastery, however, lies in the casting.

Mr. Daniels pulled together an unexpected lineup. Mariah Carey as a social worker and Lenny Kravitz as a nurse? Both are almost unrecognizable, especially Ms. Carey. Paula Patton plays Ms. Rains, a teacher at the alternative school Precious begins attending. Ms. Patton effectively balances maternal protectiveness with tough love; she cares enough to want her students to succeed, but she’s been around enough to know that the odds of it happening aren’t in their favor.

Mo’nique (Yes, “Phat Girlz”) plays Precious’s mother, Mary. Mary is the kind of character who ought to be added to the American Film Institute’s top villians list. She verbally and physically abuses her teenage daughter, putting on the air of loving mother when a social worker comes around in order to get welfare checks. It is a role that cannot be played effectively if one isn’t willing to be utterly ugly and unlikeable. Already the recipient of the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Awards, Mo’nique is the favorite to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar this year.

And then, of course, there is Ms. Sidibe. In the film, she drags her feet, slurs her words unintelligibly and never smiles. Precious is the picture of misery.

To see the actress in interviews, then, is a testament to the natural talent of this young woman. Ms. Sidibe is energetic, optimistic and good-humored. One is hard-pressed to think of a better breakthrough performance than hers.

“I’m a random girl from Harlem,” she said, at the 13th annual Hollywood Awards, “and this room is way too big for me.”

The “room” that is Hollywood is better with her in it.

about Holly Leber ...

Holly Leber is a reporter and columnist for the Life section. She has worked at the Times Free Press since March 2008. Holly covers “everything but the kitchen sink" when it comes to features: the arts, young adults, classical music, art, fitness, home, gardening and food. She writes the popular and sometimes-controversial column Love and Other Indoor Sports. Holly calls both New York City and Saratoga Springs, NY home. She earned a bachelor of arts ...

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