Probably the least important aspect of Lee Daniels’ fantastic new drama “Push: Based on the novel by Sapphire” was still the biggest elephant in the room at the Racquet Club theater in Park City, Utah last night: Can Mariah Carey show any acting skills whatsoever? Surprisingly, the answer is yes. In a movie filled with unconventional casting, Carey goes plain jane (i.e, absolutely no makeup) as a social worker and has to participate in a number of intense scenes where her fans will be happy to learn she clearly does not embarrass herself. The bigger surprises, however, were provided by Mo’Nique and the film’s star, newcomer Gabourey Sidibe.
Set in late ’80s Harlem, “Push” tells the harrowing story of Precious Jones (Sidibe), a teenager who is living through a private hell of incest and abuse from her family. Precious escapes from her troubles by fantasizing about being a star walking the red carpet, being a supermodel and, um, marrying her math teacher. Her true freedom comes, however, through a special city learning program administrated by a patient teacher (a fine Paula Patton) who sees the positive in her tough luck students.
In her feature film debut, Sidibe is impressive conveying how battered Precious is, but she also shows glimpses of an inner strength the character will need to escape her hellish prison. Time will tell whether the young actress has the range for other roles, but its an auspicious start for sure.
As her domineering mother, Mo’Nique, who has previously only ventured into comedic roles, is absolutely stunning. Most of the film requires her to display utter contempt for Precious, but as the story progresses, she adds a sympathy that is both unexpected and moving. Mo’Nique may not have thought she had a career as a serious actress, but that will completely change after “Push”
With the film not shying away from some truly horrendous events, Daniels provides much needed relief by making Precious’ learning program classmates truly memorable characters and their energy and humor contrast with her horribly unpleasant life at home (don’t be surprised if a number of catch phrases including “my favorite color is neon beige” become popular among the younger set after the film’s release). More impressive is Daniels confident visual style that go beyond his spot on period references in the fantasy sequences. The filmmaker could have easily fallen into the melodramatic cliches of similar stories, but instead its the combination of superb performances, sharp production design and a keen eye that make “Push” so special.
“Push” is an inspiring and powerful film that will put Daniels on the map as one of cinema’s emerging talents. Now, all he has to do is figure out how to pull off an equally rewarding encore.