Precious has once again put me in the uncomfortable position of debating just how much I can really enjoy “inspirational” tales about situations slightly too horrific to be believable. Yet, simultaneously, the film that relies on the audience recognizing physical, sexual and emotional abuse in a way that falls just out-of-bounds for cinema stereotype. It’s a mixed bag that is saved by its performances even when the sloppy assembly of the film makes itself obvious.
Precious is the tale of Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), a obese 16-year old living with her abusive mother (Mo’Nique). We pick up on her life in 1987 in Harlem right as she’s been impregnated by her rapist father for a second time and as she gets kicked out of her public school in lieu of a more specialized GED education at an alternate schooling center called Each One, Teach One. Her teacher, a lesbian named Blu Rain (Paula Patton) encourages Precious to write everyday in her notebook, a assignment that eventually leads to the poor girl coming into her own.
The film is directed by Lee Daniels, who brought Cuba Gooding Jr to Shadowboxer in 2005 (Mo’nique plays a character named ‘Precious’ in that film). Shadowboxer wasn’t the most masterfully constructed tale, so it’s not a surprise that Precious shows some strides forward in terms of character and storytelling. However, if one thing didn’t work for me in Precious, it was Daniel’s directing.
From the rape scene that focuses on sweat and fried food to Precious’ fantasy sequences, Daniels is visually inconsistent and doesn’t seem to trust his narrative to tell the story. There are points where Daniels’ little tricks work, like when the heavy-set, dark-ebony Precious looks in the mirror and imagines she’s a skinny white girl, but there are also a handful of cutaways and fantasies that don’t contribute much more to the story than the sparse voiceover.
It may seem like a weird aspect to point out, but: for a film that has such great performances, it plays like it was made by a director that didn’t trust those performances and instead had to make sure the audience is “getting it” with broad strokes when silence or minutia could have said so much more.
If we take a similar sort of cinema, really any of the countless movies where a child in an unfortunate situation finds a teacher that is able to connect to her, and start drawing comparisons, Precious starts looking a little too bold-faced in its intentions. Take a film like Half-Nelson, where the teacher is a white guy with a crack addiction and the student is an African-American female. They both bond in a quiet and realistic manner and the whole time we understand that both parties are in impossible situations and looking for companionship. Part of the problem with Precious, the character, in this film is that she takes so much abuse before she finally cracks that it makes the lesser abuse stereotypical and therefore less effective. Someone who gets frying pans thrown at them has a hard and horrible life and someone who has a seconds child by her father has a horrible life, but as soon as we get to the incest, the pans seem lesser. I know that’s horrible, but that’s how it plays.
There is a tipping point for Precious, another roadblock of life that eventually makes her emote (Hint: the movie IS set in the 80s when this roadblock was the talk of the nation…God, I can’t keep calling it a “roadblock;” it’s HIV). Up until that point, the brilliance of Gabourey Sidibe’s performance is the subtlety, even when that subtlety works against the shock we are supposed to be feeling.
I know it’s not fair to watch a movie then pretend you had seen something different, but Precious was a great drama when all it was showing me was the chronological progression of the main character. A scene where she steals a tub of fried chicken showed me more about the character than the fifth cut-away to a fantasy world where Precious is a celebrity with a whiter accent.
There’s a point in the movie where Precious is bringing a baby back to her mother’s place and the entire audience around me started turning up the tension, knowing that things were about to go horribly wrong. That’s about where I disconnected from the film. I realized that I was in a sold out theater with a full-balcony and at least half of the theater came to see a sixteen year old girl in the worst situation imaginable.
Lee Daniels could have turned Precious into something more like torture porn where the audience comes to see the horrors of the real world enacted on the unfortunate. Daniels also could have side-stepped some of the more extreme abuse and let these characters bounce off each other. What Lee Daniels did was land somewhere in-between, sometimes making a fetish of Precious’ fantasies and other times lingering on the abuse.
The bottom line is that Precious is a good film saved by fantastic performances from all its actors and actresses. It’s probably going to grab one of the Best Picture nominations and litter other Oscar categories with its cast. But like other films that exist to show a mainstream audience the worst of the “other half,” it sometimes swerves too close to exploitation of the minority experience. The end result is a film that will jerk tears out of you if you’re prone to opening your heart to inspirational cinema but will leave you feeling ambivalent if you’re judging the film based on what you see.