After winning Audience and Grand Jury awards at Sundance and its lauded premiere in Toronto last week, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire is now considered an Oscar lock — for one, maybe two acting award nominations but not Best Picture. The argument against its BP chances goes something like, “It’s a low-budget film with no Oscar vets (Eastwood, Jolie) and has an unknown teenage star (Gabby Sidibe), some distracting celebrity cameos (Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz), and a sexual-abuse plot so bleak that wide audiences will stay away.” A pretty convincing argument — but after the movie picked up the People’s Choice award at Toronto last weekend, that logic was busted. Here are the reasons Precious must be taken seriously in the Best Picture race — not as an underdog, but as a lock for a nomination, and as a legit front-runner.
1. Slumdog Millionaire brought risk-taking back.
Oscar season is always cluttered with dull biopics (like the one for Charles Darwin, Creation, which was met with a shrug at Toronto) and message movies that often pick up acting awards but rarely Best Picture. Last year’s Toronto People’s Choice winner, Slumdog Millionaire, reminded us that stylistically ambitious, risky filmmaking could take statues. Variety and Hollywood Reporter have called Precious “an urban nightmare with a surfeit of soul” and “a disturbing, overwhelming story,” respectively. Roger Ebert won’t stop raving — or predicting it’s “all but certain” to be one of the ten best-pic nominees.
2. Backlash against the new nomination system could favor the film.
The ten-nominee Best Picture system was largely seen as a ploy to bring in more blockbusters and glitz after the apparently abhorrent success of indies over the last decade. Who knows what will happen when the vote is split up: When voters rank films from one to ten, it could certainly favor the middlebrow — but it’s hard to imagine a plurality of voters slotting Precious at the bottom of the list in the same way voters might be inclined to vote down an overhyped studio picture out of resentment over the new system. In any case, it will certainly help to have a passionate voting block — and Precious seems to be earning that quickly.
3. Oprah loves it.
Alongside Tyler Perry, Oprah Winfrey has promised to use every tentacle of her media empire to hype the film. She isn’t exactly going to blot out coverage of buddies like George Clooney, but don’t underestimate her: The woman just helped elect a president. It’s highly unlikely this film earns buckets of money — but Perry and Winfrey might help remove the box-office-viability concern.
4. Other contenders are faltering.
The Best Picture field is looking less crowded every day. A few major movies (like Green Zone) have already been bumped out of the awards season. Many of this year’s early films from major directors (including Funny People, Public Enemies, The Soloist, Away We Go, Cheri, and Taking Woodstock) have underwhelmed. Then at Toronto, Precious picked up speed while several other Oscar-bait films (The Road, The Informant!) debuted solidly but failed to knock out critics or audiences. A Serious Man, Up in the Air, and A Single Man screened big — but none has the momentum of Precious.