Unsure of what to make of this film I sat on this review until now...
Precious (review from 11/29/09)
Dir. Lee Daniels
I have said it so often its probably annoying by now, but the line between great films and awful films is so thin that its often hard to tell the two apart. Mostly because great films and greatly bad films both strive for a level of greatness that other films are too complacent or reticent to strive for. There are moments in Precious where it goes from grotesque naturalism to John Waters territory. Precious stealing a bucket of fried chicken and running down the street carrying it is one example. Since Precious is based on a novel by a black woman and was adapted by a black screenwriter and a black director, I am less concerned about the implications but more confused; not that people cannot reinforce stereotypes about themselves. But I don't think that's what's going on here.
Daniels succeeds in making this one uncomfortable film to sit through. Though, at times he does pull some rather cheap shots, and his near classical montage editing in flashbacks don't help much. For instance, the cut away to an egg frying during a rape scene, was just astonishing, I mean where do I begin with that image or how its presented? There are other cut aways to boiling food, that seem more than a bit over determined, or straight out of Eisenstein.
So, whether or not this is a great film or a greatly awful film, Daniels succeeds in creating a film which definitely makes the audience uncomfortable, and makes them think. And I have to think that this was intended to be, not an uplifting tale of over-coming odds, but an all-out assault on a complacent audience who has seen their fair share of inspirational minority success films. It would be interesting for someone to compare this to the recently released Blind Side, a film I haven,t seen, but feel I,ve seen several times before. What's important here is that there is only one white character, and she's partially unwilling and mostly unable to do anything.Precious is not for the faint of heart or stomach or faint of anything. It's lit, shot, edited, and acted to provoke, and perhaps the whole Oprah and Tyler Perry endorsement works in a deliciously perverse way in this regard.
The film concerns Precious (Gabourey Sidibe), an obese 16 year old, whos kicked out of junior high for getting pregnant a second time by her abusive father. Her mother, a near unrecognizable Monique, abuses Precious in every way possible, sits at home in front of the TV all day, and milks the welfare system. However, Precious begins attending an alternative school, taught by Ms. Rain (Paula Patton) and seeing a social worker (an even more unrecognizable Marriah Carey). Precious is brilliant in math, but is nearly illiterate, and has no self-esteem whatsoever. If you think this is going to be another Stand and Deliver film you're horribly mistaken. Things don't get better once Precious starts school, and the ending leaves everything up to the audience. Like the French Naturalists (Zola and Becque) this is a work that requires action on the part of the audience in order for the work to be rewarding. It does not do the work for you.
That said this was a moving film, and a hopeful one that, despite all the films techniques, feels earned and honest. Perhaps because this isn't a film about a person overcoming the system or learning to succeed in it. No large social system succeeds in the film. Rather this is about one girl who against all odds has something inside her that allows her to make small steps to get out of a real-life hell. Hers may be the most extreme of cases, but her life isn't too far off, or probably feels not far off from millions of people in the US who are, for various reasons, constantly struggling against cycles of abuse, poverty, addiction, or ignorance. This film puts that far more profoundly and beautifully than I could.
The acting is amazing by all the leads, and all 3 actresses (Sidibe, Monique, and Patton) should get Oscar nods. Monique, in particular, perhaps drawing upon her talk show experiences dealing with crazy people from the margins and fringes of society, gives a startling performance, perhaps the most horrifying performance of villainy by a female actor since Louise Fletcher's Nurse Ratched in Cuckoo's nest. And they are similar performances: cold, terrifying, and while the characters are one-dimensional, each adds layers of vulnerability which suggest an even more frightening psyche underneath their hard exterior. And in many ways both of those films are dramatic horror films which focus on a troubling aspect of society without offering any suggestions.