Friday, December 11, 2009


Director: Lee Daniels
Starring: Gabourey Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz
Running Time: 110 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Precious, or if you feel more comfortable adding its clunky subtitle, Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire, is the emotional equivalent of being beaten with a sledgehammer for two hours straight. In attempting to explore the painful gap between what people are and who they wish to be, and the internal and external factors preventing that, director Lee Daniels' film really piles it on. Poverty, obesity, incest, rape, domestic violence, illiteracy, Down Syndrome, HIV, homosexuality and racism. There's no arguing that all these topics and issues have existed and do still very much exist today. I can even buy that all of them could be present in the life of one person. What I can't completely get on board with is anyone having a burning desire to see them explored in such a brutal and unsettling way.

The movie isn't offensive or exploitive as I feared it could be going in, and it does seem to be made with the purest of intentions, but there's no escaping the fact that it's still depressing and slightly manipulative. the very definition of a viewing you wouldn't want to repeat. But despite knowing all the right buttons to push to trigger the desired emotional response (often using distracting narrative devices to do it), the film's saving graces are the gritty, no-nonsense approach to the material and the uniformly excellent performances. A couple of them really are Oscar worthy, even if the film's awards merits as a whole are somewhat questionable.

Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry are credited as producers but I'm guessing they had little to do with the development and instead saw an opportunity to attach their valued names to a project they believed in and thought would generate cash flow. If it gained some awards attention in the process then that's even better for them. But I'd be curious to know what Oprah finds the slightest bit "inspiring" about it since from where I sat the film felt like more of an ordeal than anything else. Nonetheless, it succeeds in tackling difficult subject matter that we're used to seeing botched by most other mainstream releases.

It's 1987 Harlem and Clareece Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is an overweight, illiterate 16-year-old African American girl pregnant with her second child as a result of being raped by her father. She waits on her lazy, abusive monster of a mother, Mary (Mo'Nique) whose days are spent on the couch watching game shows and collecting welfare checks. Despite being an excellent math student, Precious is kicked out of school when they find out about her pregnancy and must enroll in an alternative one. The only glimmer of hope in her life comes from her new teacher, Ms. Rain (Paula Patton) who inspires her to learn to read in the face of her mother's objections and Ms. Weiss, a social worker (Mariah Carey) determined to get to the bottom of the cycle of abuse.

The method with which Daniels tells this story can best be described in three words: IN YOUR FACE. He at least deserves credit for having the courage of his convictions and going all the way with this, refusing to sugarcoat anything. Given its subject matter, this is the kind of film bound (and you could argue constructed) to provoke passionate responses in audiences at either extreme, yet I strangely found myself stuck in the middle with it. I appreciated its dedication to unflinching realism and brutal honesty but took exception to some of the over-the-top editorializing Daniels engaged in.

Dream sequences in which Precious imagines herself as a skinny white girl or a famous celebrity with a light-skinned black boyfriend and montages inter-cutting rape with eggs frying were a bit much, as was the overabundance of voice-over narration. There's hardly a scene in the entire movie where Precious' "thoughts" aren't talking over everything that happens, often just needlessly reinforcing points already being made by the action or Sidibe's performance. Even under ideal circumstances it's a method that should be used sparingly, but this is a good example of what happens when this narrative approach is abused and its presence spirals out of control. The decision seems a strange fit in a movie taking the same cold, hard documentary-style approach The Wrestler did last year, a film that told its similarly uncompromising story more effectively without having to resort to those techniques.

The real truth here lies in its depiction of the everyday hell this girl goes through and the performances, none of which hit a false note. Anchoring it all in the title role is newcomer Gabriel Sibde who literally becomes this girl, although you have to wonder just how much her sheer physical onscreen presence contributes to to our perception of the performance. As Mary, comedian Mo'Nique absolutely tears through every scene she's given, delivering work every bit as impressive as you've heard. She takes a character that on paper could easily be stereotypical and even in moments of pure rage fleshes her out as an actual human being, albeit a monstrous one. She has a scene very late in the film in the social worker's office that just bursts with uncomfortable raw emotion as we realize that while there may be an explanation for her behavior, she's ultimately beyond any kind of redemption and knows it. Regardless of my reservations about the overwrought material, there's no question she delivers an award-worthy turn.

Paula Patton is given the most thankless role an actress can be saddled with (and one of the silliest character names) as the inspiring teacher, but somehow makes those scenes more bearable than they had any right being by wisely not overplaying them. Even with her best efforts though, this aspect is probably the weakest and most familiar in the picture since it can't help but recall middling dramas like Freedom Writers and Dangerous Minds. A big deal has been made about Mariah Carey leaving painful memories of Glitter behind and appearing in the film without makeup. What a traumatizing ordeal it must have been for her to look like an average person for 15 minutes. Charlize Theron in Monster this isn't. That said, she does a solid job in the role of a concerned social worker and her casting isn't distracting at all. Rocker Lenny Kravitz makes his feature acting debut as a caring nurse but it's essentially a throwaway part that adds nothing to the story.

The character of Precious is really no better off at the end of the film than when it starts. But there's some hope. I appreciated that Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher didn't cop out and play it safe, opting for a neat finale that ties everything up and reassures us everything will be fine. It won't be fine. This isn't inspirational and it shouldn't be. Watching the movie can best be described as cinematic rubbernecking in that many scenes have a car crash quality to them, yet it's impossible to look away. Mostly, the right approach was taken with the material because there are many ways this could have been far worse had the filmmaker decided to wimp out. At least it didn't insult our intelligence or water down the issues to attract a larger audience. My main problem with it is that we don't go to the movies to have experiences like this and audiences shouldn't be leaving the theater wanting to slit their wrists.

Every year around Christmas time Oscar contending films are released dealing with serious social issues and anointed dozens of nominations on the basis of the hot-button causes they navigate rather than any spectacular achievement in filmmaking That was my issue with Milk last year, which was even guiltier of that offense than this. I'm also not sure this leaves you thinking about or discussing these issues in depth long after you've seen it, at least beyond how uncompromisingly they're presented . While movies should reflect what's going on in the world, they should also be obligated to provide some escape from it. Precious is worth a look for its performances and honesty, even if you're left wondering why it's a necessity to see it.

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