By the mid-point of Sundance 2008, the standout film of the dramatic competition was Lance Hammer's Ballast,
which mined unexpected poetry from the story of a poverty-line black
family making ends meet in the Mississippi Delta. This year, it's a
film that casts an equally penetrating gaze on the trials and
tribulations of disenfranchised blacks in the urban jungle of
pre-gentrification Harlem, circa 1987. Adapted from the first novel by
the Nuyorican poetess known as Sapphire, Push: Based on the novel by Sapphire
immerses us detail by agonizing detail in the life of a morbidly obese
16-year-old, Clareece "Precious" Jones (newcomer Gabourey Sidibe),
whose welfare mother (Mo'Nique) beats her with a frying pan, who is
repeatedly raped at the hands of her father (resulting in one Down
Syndrome baby and, early in the film, a second pregnancy), and whose
only escape from her bleak existence are the vivid daydreams in which
she imagines herself a ghetto-fabulous fashion model or pop star.
Directed by Lee Daniels, who established himself as a producer (with Monster's Ball and The Woodsman) before making his directorial debut with the risible 2005 mother-and-son assassin romp Shadowboxer, Push isn't half the piece of controlled, confident craftsmanship that Ballast
was, but it may be that Daniels' crude, wildly undisciplined,
anything-goes directorial style is exactly what the movie calls for.
Hothouse melodrama one moment, pungent social realism the next, with
dashes of slapstick farce (be they intentional or not) in between, Push
takes the better part of an hour to settle on something resembling a
consistent tone, yet even when the movie is at its most schizoid, you
can't take your eyes off of it.
Not one for subtlety, Daniels puts black female lives destroyed by
abuse and defeatism on the screen with a brute-force intensity and lack
of sentimentality (The Color Purple this certainly isn't). He
also gathers a collection of startlingly effective performances from
such unlikely players as Mo'Nique (whose monster mom is anything but a
one-note villain), Mariah Carey (deglamorized as an empathetic social
worker) and the magnanimous Sidibe, who carries this exhausting and
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strangely exhilarating film on her mighty shoulders. Push is
far from perfect, but there isn't much I've seen at Sundance this year
that I wouldn't trade for the sight of a hard-won smile finally making
its way across Precious Jones' stoic, beautiful, wounded face.