I think I am still trying to process Precious. It’s not a film that I had an instinctive reaction to once it finished. I was curiously inarticulate with my friends afterwards about how I felt about it, and I am not sure, 2 days later, if I have really figured it out.
This is a film whose raw elements work brilliantly. Mo’Nique is as good as I have been hearing for close to a year now. She is terrifying in the film – her scenes were some of the tensest, most unpleasant things I have sat through in a long time, mostly because she was utterly convincing and real. I was expecting her to be much louder, more extreme presence but her quieter, more contained venom was much more chilling.
Her big break-down scene is an excellent example. I figured this would be the moment where the film would try to ‘humanise’ her, make her a bit more sympathetic. To some extent it did, but not in the way I was expecting. Mary starts out trying to sound contrite about how she has treated Precious, but under the relentless prodding from Mariah Carey’s special worker Ms Weiss, she breaks down and explains exactly why she allowed Precious to be abused by her father and why she herself then continued the abuse. It’s a terrifying, sad, pathetic scene and Mo’Nique is fearless, laying bare this woman’s twisted, ugly soul, making her both more believable and more shocking. She deserves every single award she has received for her work.
The rest of the cast aren’t too shabby either. Gabby Sidibe gives one of those performances which doesn’t feel like acting so much as simply being. The fact that she is nothing like Precious in real life is just a marker of the brilliance of her work. Paula Patton is lovely, grounded and sincere as Ms Rain but she has one of the more problematic roles (more on that later). Mariah Carey has received a lot of enthusiastic reviews, and while I think she is does good work, the role itself doesn’t really go anywhere.
I do want to give a special mention to the actresses who play Precious’ classmates. Whoever put that group together should get a special award – what a superb bunch of performers. Effortlessly natural and funny, they made the film a much warmer and funnier experience than I expected. And Lenny Kravatz looks very pretty…
Director Lee Daniels ramps the melodrama up pretty high (a friend of mine called it bathos and I think that’s a perfect description). He gets a lot of mileage out of rubbing our noses into the grime of Precious’ life but I actually think this is quite honest in its own way. Melodrama wants to evoke strong emotions in people and I respect his stylistic decision. I think he mostly manages to stay on the right side of sentimentality throughout, and he generates some pretty unbearable tension in the scenes with Mo’Nique. More than that, Daniels seems to love all his characters – he likes to hang out with them, especially the girls in the class scenes and this lends the film a vibrancy and humanity that helps it overcome some of the trickier tonal inconsistencies.
Because those inconsistencies are right there in the script. I haven’t read Sapphire’s novel and I have no idea how close to reality the film is. But we should be clear about one thing – this is a film, a piece of fiction and as such, it should be judged about how well it shapes its material. I think it is all a bit of a mess, veering quite wildly between horror, goofy comedy, inspirational drama and intense tragedy. Some of these parts work much better than others. Anything with Mo’Nique is superb and the scenes between the girls in the classroom have an easy, unforced warmth. But the character of Blu Rain, as played by Paula Patton, seems to have been dropped in from another film. I don’t deny that great teachers like her exist, but her dialogue was often trite and ridiculous and the film suddenly seemed a bit like typical Hollywood schlock. This inconsistency didn’t really bother me as I was watching the film but I think it did contribute to my ambivalence about the ending.
There has been a lively debate about the film, the most recent being David Cox’s screed published in The Guardian. I think Cox is wildly over the top in denouncing the film, and is guilty himself of the same crime he accuses other viewers of, of universalising Precious’ experiences to all poor black people. I don’t doubt that there are people out there who will sit in smug satisfaction in the cinema while their worst prejudices about tenement life are realised. I don’t think this is fair – the film never tries to portray Precious as emblematic of an entire gender, race or social class. Her life is too specific for that and I don’t think the filmmakers should be criticised for the reaction of lazy, selfish viewers.
For me, there was nothing particularly ‘ennobling’ about watching the film. I didn’t get a vicarious thrill out of the grime, sweat, blood and tears. In fact, I got a sense of ultimately how precarious Precious’ hope was at the end of the film. I left the cinema still not quite sure if Daniels intended the final moments as some kind of bitter irony or not. Yes, Precious had faced down her mother, but she was still a poor, ill-educated, HIV positive teenage mum. Her decision to look after her kids seems to have been treated as a brave, necessary decision, but I can’t help agreeing with Ms Rain (in the one bit of complexity her saintly character is allowed) that Precious’ best option was to give the children up for adoption. The HIV situation just seemed thrown out there as well. Considering this was set in 1988, when a HIV diagnosis was still considered a short-term death sentence, the lack of any impact her status, age and education levels would have on her being allowed to keep her kids is a little mystifying.
In Cox’s article, he criticises the film thusly;
The picture painted presents 16-year-old, 25-stone Precious as the victim, not of social and economic conditions, even partially, but solely of the behaviour of her kind. Nonetheless, she must somehow show she can blossom and inspire us. The film-makers don't give her much of a helping hand… Their betters can pity them, but they're required to do little else. Routes out of disadvantage have been made available. Unfortunately, most of those who need them won't be taking them. Still, that's really the fault of their own incorrigibility. What a shame.
I call bullshit on this. I can’t believe that Cox sat through the film and came out thinking that it had not shown exactly how social and economic issues conspired along with the abuse and horror of her own family life, to severely limit Precious’ options. I actually thought that the film was quite subtle about showing the cycle of poverty which conspires to keep women like Precious in ghetto life, without ever feeling like it was a polemic. Either Cox wasn’t paying attention or he went in with his mind already made up.
So yes, I had some quite serious problems with the film. Those problems do become more serious the more I think about them so I can’t really jump on the rave bandwagon. However, I do think it will well worth watching for the strength of the acting and for Daniels go-for-broke direction.