Every year in Park City, the folks who program the Sundance Film Festival try their hardest to save the best for last. The last Sunday of the festival is always reserved for screenings of the award winning films. And assuming the festival’s jury picks the right movies, it usually leads to late-fest audiences being delighted with some of the most impressive films of that particular year. And as a member of the press, I am only ever able to request two tickets for that final day. The safe bet — and the one I always go with — is to request a ticket two each of the final two screenings at the massive Eccles theater, to see the winners of both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award in the dramatic category. This usually means that I will be able to see the two best films of the festival. Of course this year I was thrown for a loop as both of these awards were given to the same movie, Lee Daniels’ urban drama Push: Based on a novel by Sapphire. It is a rare occurrence, happening only 3 other times in the 25 year history of the festival, so I was instantly curious to see what the fuss was all about.
What I found on that final snowy afternoon was the touching and tragic story of Precious Jones (Gabourey Sibide), an obese high school girl against whom the world appears to be working. She is pregnant with her father’s child — for the second time. She can’t read or write, and her schoolmates tease her about her weight. Her home life is also horrific, ruled by a mother (Mo’Nique) who keeps her imprisoned both emotionally and physically, telling her that her best course in life isn’t school, but rather to get herself to the welfare line and collect her check. But instead of submitting to her mother’s will, Precious trusts her instincts and finds a welcoming atmosphere in an alternative education program where she’s taken under the wing of a kind-hearted young teacher (Paula Patton). But even though she’s beginning to learn to read and write — skills that will hopefully lead her away from the ignorance and torture of her home life — precious finds that breaking free isn’t as easy as just walking away.
It may sound depressing — and at times it is — but Push is a lot more than that. The film is pulsating with an unexpected energy and vibrancy. While her home life is stunningly brutal and unforgiving, it is in Precious’ hopes and dreams where we see her true spirit. And through an incredibly well-adapted script by Damien Paul and an illuminating performance from Gabourey Sibide we are able to find a shining ray of hope in the stories central character, even as the most horrific things are happening to her. Similar words can be written about the rest of the cast, not the least of which being Mo’Nique. Her performance — an explosion of raw emotion — is one of those special performances that could transcend all of the Oscar campaigning and marketing that we see this time of the year. Her performance alone is so breathtaking that it is likely to leave you in a state of shock upon the rolling of the credits. Not as shocking, but impressive nonetheless are the performances of Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey, both of whom have never really shown any acting chops in the past. Pay attention, otherwise you might miss both of them as their characters are nothing like what you’d expect from two singers dipping their toes in the acting water.
It’s hard not to pay attention to a film that is as well-crafted and engaging as this one. And though its subject matter is sometimes off-putting, it is anchored by a character who — with creativity, humor, ferocity and charm — makes the decision to turn her life around. It is a truly courageous effort by Lee Daniels, whose made a film that is a stark contrast to his previous work on Shadowboxer. His second film is something special, something unique and worthy of your time, worthy of all the praise it has received. I’m happy to have saved it for last — because even though it wasn’t a dark comedy or a quirky romantic comedy like some of my other favorites from this year’s fest, it was certainly indicative of the diversity of this year’s festival. It was also indicative of the talented filmmakers and casts who brought films to Park City — in a year when sales were slow, it is easy to see that the quality of the films rose to the occasion. And for my money, Push was certainly near the top.