Less Money, Fewer Hits at Midpoint of Sundance 2009

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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 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.

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