by Alex Jackson The enormous hype surrounding Lee Daniels's Push: Based on the novel by Sapphire (hereafter Push) is both validating and a little confounding. Leaving Sundance with Grand Jury and Audience awards in the dramatic category, the film is an incredible mess. It takes a lot of risks, probably more than it needed to, and sometimes it falls flat on its face. The backlash has already begun to set in, natch--one commentator on the IMDb writes, "It's all glitzy fake heart, with no subtlety or clarity. It's pure adrenaline, the movie equivalent of Red Bull." He certainly saw the same movie I did, but in my book "glitzy" and "fake" aren't necessarily pejorative terms and "subtlety" isn't necessarily a virtue. If nothing else, Push is a welcome alternative to the useless, navel-gazing naturalism that so often characterizes socially conscientious cinema. It's Harlem, circa 1987, and obese, illiterate teenager Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is pregnant with her father's second child. Her principal places her in an educational program where, under the tutelage of a dedicated English teacher (Paula Patton), she learns how to read and prepares to earn her GED. Meanwhile, her abusive mother Mary (Mo'Nique) is trying to get her to forget about education and instead apply for welfare. Interspersed throughout the film are dramatizations of Precious's daydreams, fantasies of being married to her Math teacher or living inside an Italian neo-realist film. Daniels may have intended these sequences to be bittersweet and somewhat pathetic, but I found them overly cutesy. They give us a way to distance ourselves from the material. I was also turned off by a melodramatic development in the third act that exists mostly to take advantage of the 1980s setting and to artificially induce a confrontation between Mary and Precious. Still, said confrontation is a humdinger and in itself makes the picture worth recommending. As monstrous as Mary is, we see that she has her reasons for behaving as she does, and while that doesn't excuse her, it does allow us to pity and forgive her on Precious's behalf. Push is the most damning critique of the culture of poverty and our welfare system since Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby. The film positions education as the best weapon against poverty in that it moves one's locus of control inward. When Precious reveals her test score at the end of the piece, it's an authentic indicator that she is a person of worth and has overcome her mother's negativity. Far from simply appeasing the popular audience, Push additionally proves itself sociologically sound.