Opening night at the Starz Denver Film Festival: Dialed down but still Precious

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It's been a tough year for the Denver Film Society. Not only has the economy wreaked havoc on the organization, necessitating shortened hours of operation, but internal turmoil boiled over in June, when executive director Bo Smith, on the job for less than a year, was sacked following a mutiny among staff members; as many as 21 offered their resignations.

Even though most of these folks eventually returned, the film society has been struggling to get back on track ever since, and it hasn't been easy. In the weeks leading up to the 32nd annual Starz Denver Film Festival, by far the DFS' biggest bash, the phone system has been down, forcing execs like artistic director Brit Withey (who's offering his picks for best bets in this space throughout the fest) to do all their business on their cells. Moreover, budget cuts have meant plenty of painful choices -- like the decision not to print a lavish, bound program for the first time ever.

Somehow, though, the show managed to go on last night at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. And luckily, the DFS had a Precious secret weapon.

Opening night last year had a celebratory air. Nina Henderson Moore, then chair of the Denver Film Society's board of directors (and wife of Denver Post editor Greg Moore) talked about the wave of good feelings in Denver engendered by the recently concluded Democratic National Convention. She then introduced Smith by leading the crowd in a greeting of "Hello, Bo!"

Smith didn't speak that night, but plenty of other people did -- even some guy from Ceavco Audio Visual, a sponsoring organization. This time around, the speakers were much more limited. Current board chair David Charmatz did the heavy lifting, pimping sponsors and referring only in passing to Smith's replacement, former Post exec Tom Botelho, whose name prompted a good-natured whoop from the sold-out throng.

Charmatz then handed things off to festival director Britta Erickson, who introduced the fest's latest intro film -- a well-intentioned but endless and awkward multi-culti get-together on a train car -- as well as the evening's only recognizable celeb, Colorado-bred tween star AnnaSophia Robb, who waved happily from her seat. Next, she offered thanks to the folks who make the fest run every year -- including a woman who donated more than 100,000 frequent flier miles used to get filmmakers to Denver. Another telling moment...

After that, Erickson wisely turned her attention to Precious, produced by moneyed Coloradans Sarah Siegel-Magness and husband Gary Magness. They came forward along with the film's director, Lee Daniels, who got legitimately verklempt when talking about his gratitude to the Magnesses. It was a moment of pure affection, as opposed to typical Hollywood back-slappery, that was appropriate to the film to come. Yet Daniels caught the crowd off-guard by encouraging them to laugh while watching. "We did when we were making it," he admitted.

It was good advice. The flick does have moments of humor, and thank the lord, since Precious is more put upon than anyone since Job. She's an overweight Harlem teen circa 1987 who's pregnant with her second child by her HIV-positive father and consistently abused by her monstrous mother, played by Mo'Nique with an unflinching brutality that will almost certainly win her a certain golden statuette.

Parts of the story are actually quite traditional, fitting into the stereotypical mold of inspirational teacher films like Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers. Ms. Rain, played by Paula Patton, is every bit as unbelievably pure and devoted as Michelle Pfeiffer or Hilary Swank in those flicks, although, as a lesbian with an understanding mate, viewers don't have to suffer through endless scenes of a put-upon spouse whining about not getting enough attention (I'm talking to you, Patrick Dempsey).

Better yet, Daniels doesn't attempt to tell his tale of ghetto life through the eyes of an outsider. Precious is the focus, and newcomer Gabourey 'Gabby' Sidibe is so understated and guileless in the face of gruesome behavior that she helps squelch any sentimentality.

There's plenty of shock value along the way, thanks mainly to Mo'Nique, who angrily tosses a newborn on the floor at one point (Daniels withholds a shot showing the child to be okay for an agonizing length of time) and subsequently describes in unsettling detail the first time Precious' father molested his little girl -- when she was just three.

Still, classroom scenes with Ms. Rain allow the film to breath, and Daniels' visual artistry and willingness to indulge in shimmery fantasy sequences in which Precious imagines a fame she'll never realize prevent the proceedings from deteriorating into a monochromatic trudge toward inevitability. And as a bonus, he manages to get a strong performance out of none other than Mariah Carey -- a miracle on par with the parting of the Red Sea.

Following the final credits, Daniels returned to the stage with Siegel-Magness to discuss the project with Post film critic Lisa Kennedy, and again, genuine emotion was in plentiful supply, as was legitimate affection between the producer and the director. It was the ideal way to end the kickoff event -- by placing the focus on movies, as opposed to the difficulties that preceded the dimming of the lights.

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