Lee Daniel’s film Precious is a movie that has been heavily hyped by a number of critical forces since its debut at this year’s Sundance film festival. In spite of all the good marks the film has been getting, the prospect of actually seeing the damn thing is something I’d been dreading all year. There were a number of elements to this movie that had me apprehensions, chief among them being the movie’s title, which seems to set the movie up has some kind of kindergarten level self-esteem exercise about how everyone is “special” and “precious.” Even the film’s producers seem to be embraced by that title as evidenced by the awkward way they’ve been attaching “based on the novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” to the back of it every chance they get. The bigger force in making me dread this viewing experience is the film’s trailer, which sells the movie as exactly the kind of inspirational sappiness I was afraid it would be. The fact that Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, two people who are hardly adverse to the saccharine, were attaching their names didn’t boost my confidence either. My one hope was that the last prestige movie I dreaded this much was Brokeback Mountain, which looked like pure cheese from the trailer featuring the trademark “I can’t quit you” line, but that movie proved to be a extremely well done and expertly restrained work. Knowing how bad trailers can make certain movies look when they’re being sold to the public, I held out hope that this was just a case of problematic advertising, that this really was as good as all the buzz would have me believe. Trust me; I really wanted this to be good, but for the most part this proved to be a sad case of truth in advertising.
The film centers on Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), who goes by her middle name and who is in a really bad situation. She’s a sixteen year old living in a squalid Harlem apartment with her mentally and physically abusive mother (Mo’Nique), who gets all her income from welfare. Claireece is illiterate, she gave birth to a mentally disabled child after being raped by her own father, and now she’s pregnant again with another of her father’s children. So what is the point of focusing on someone who is in this bad of a situation. If the not-so-subtle naming of its main character, the “inspirational” quote the movie opens on, its tagline (Life is hard. Life is short. Life is painful. Life is rich. Life is….Precious.) and its website URL (weareallprecious.com) are any indication; the hallmark card-like goal of this movie is to prove to its audience that everyone even, if they are in dire straits, is precious. This is a message in search of an audience to convince. Does anyone really think a person is any less “precious” simply because they suffer in life? I find it rather insulting that the filmmakers feel the need to prove this to the audience to begin with. What’s worse I don’t think the film even follows its own mantra.
Let’s think about all the problems that the filmmakers have saddled Caireece with. It obviously isn’t Caireece’s fault that her mother is abusive, her mother is also implicated as the source of Claireece’s problems in school, and her parents are also the cause of her pregnancies either by direct action (in the case of her father) or from failing to prevent the situation (in the case of her mother). Sapphire and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher have basically constructed a character who is completely blameless for the situation she’s in, every one of her problems are without a shadow of a doubt placed squarely on the shoulders of her screwed up family. This, too me, is the root weakness of this movie. It’s very easy to generate sympathy for someone who’s had all their problems thrust upon them, its simplistic. Had they decided to create a character that was in a situation like this because they themselves made some bad decisions in life, and then established them as someone who was “precious” it would have made for a movie that was significantly more challenging, provocative, and true to life.
As such, I found myself significantly more interested in Claireece’s deeply flawed mother than I was in the blameless martyr for whom the film is titled. But the film isn’t really interested in exploring this mother either, or in adding many nuances to her character. She’s basically as evil as Claireece is sympathetic. This mother is pretty much everything that Ronald Reagan had in his head when he coined the term “welfare queen.” She’s a fat, lazy woman who spends all her days watching game shows except when she occasionally leaves in order to play “the numbers.” She constantly abuses and discourages Claireece, threatening to beat her whenever she fails to do everything she’s told and actively preventing her from furthering her education. Later in the movie she proves to be such a moustache twirling villain as to actively insult and toss a baby. But let’s hold on a second. I thought everybody was supposed to be precious. Therefore, shouldn’t that make Claireece’s mother precious too. I don’t think the content of the movie would support that, it produces a pretty simple dichotomy of the blameless child and the evil mother. In essence this is a movie that has a great deal of sympathy for people who are born into bad situations, but very little sympathy for those who have created a bad situation for themselves. This rather conservative message is a fair enough point of view, but I find the film’s endless claims of having a compassionate and non-judgmental world view to be disingenuous.
Putting all that aside, there are other elements that make this a pretty uncompelling movie going experience, and chief among them is a character named Blu Rain, played by Paula Patton, who is meant to be a thinly disguised version of the movie’s author (get it, sapphire, Blue Rain). This character is a teacher at an alternative education facility that Claireece is sent to, and this school storyline is easily the most clichéd and sappy element of the whole movie. This whole subplot basically turns this into one of those horrible movies about saint-like inspirational teachers trying desperately to reach a diverse group of “inner-city” youths. There is almost nothing that separates the classroom elements here from garbage like Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver, and Freedom Writers. I had thought that this ridiculous trope had been shattered once and for all by Ryan Fleck’s excellent 2006 drama Half Nelson, and perhaps by the great fourth season of David Simon’s “The Wire,” both works which have significantly more knowledge of the condition of underprivileged youths than this movie could ever dream of possessing. The ineptitude of this sub-plot is magnified by Paula Patton’s less than stellar performance which is well below the standard set by the rest of the cast. When this character says to Caireece: “your daughter loves you, I love you” it’s every bit as TV-movie worthy as the trailer would have you believe.
Fortunately, the rest of the acting in this movie is a lot better than the work Patton displays. In fact I’d probably say that the excellent performances of Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’Nique are damn near the film’s only redeeming qualities. Sidibe, an unknown, is quite a find and is perfect for her role. Many have made the mistake of thinking that she was simply an underprivileged young girl that the filmmakers found on the street and essentially cast as herself in the role, but this isn’t really the case, she’s an actress playing a role and she plays it really well. Mo’Nique is even more of a revelation in her role, like Jamie Foxx before her she’s a comedian who has broken out of the “black comedy” ghetto to prove herself to be a great and forceful actor. These are both roles that require the two thespians to inhabit very foreign roles which require a whole lot of yelling and crying, the kind of roles that are easy to give awards to, but both Sidibe and Mo’Nique do their jobs effectively and I think it is their work that has primarily tricked a multitude of critics and pundits into thinking this movie is something more than it really is.
I wish I could say that there was another element that matched the performances of these two actresses, but there really isn’t. I suppose some of the dialogue was pretty well written, at least outside of the Blu Rain sub-plot, but otherwise I found a lot of the filmmaking here subpar. Lee Daniels’ direction here seems confused and inconsistent. On one hand Daniels, whose only previous directing credit is the critically lambasted Shadowboxer, seems to want to give the movie a gritty handheld look to match the material, but he undercuts this style at all points with a variety of visual tricks and devices that are at odds with this. The movie is filled with montages, scenes where video is superimposed onto walls, obnoxious fantasy sequences that go nowhere and signify almost nothing, and the occasional Arronofsy-esque quick cut montage. It feels like Daniels is trying to use every crayon in his box of tricks to seeing what sticks rather than simply letting the story play out, and this is all the more problematic simply because a lot of these tricks aren’t even overly well executed.
There’s one great scene towards the end, a confrontation between Claireece and her mother, in which the two actresses are finally allowed to talk in detail without being interrupted by one of Lee Daniel’s stupid tricks. It’s probably the only scene in the movie where the mother is given a shred of complexity and the film’s style really accentuates the scene rather than interrupt it. This is like an isolated scene from a much better movie and if the rest of the material here had been on par with that scene this might have been something great. Instead this is a major missed opportunity filled with sappy material, a confused message, told by a confused filmmaker that has somehow hypnotized America’s critics into ignoring its numerous flaws.
*1/2 out of Four