If the seriousness of a film’s subject directly correlated with the film’s excellence, then Lee Daniels‘ Precious would be one of the greatest motion pictures ever made. However, that formula does not always prove true. We’ve seen bad films about unrepentant Nazis and brilliant films about forty-year-old virgins. Precious falls somewhere in-between on the ‘brilliance scale’, achieving moments of haunting, devastating power, yet too often lapsing into laughably ridiculous melodrama. One thing is certain; Precious is no easy ride. As far as harrowing films go, it makes The Road seem like The Wiz.
The movie is based on the novel Push by Sapphire, adapted for the screen by Geoffrey Fletcher. It takes place in 1986, and tells the story of Precious (Gabourey ‘Gabby’ Sidibe), an illiterate 17-year-old girl who lives with her monster of a mother (Mo’Nique) in Harlem, New York. She already has one child (with Down Syndrome) and another on the way. They are both the product of her father. The young girl is struggling at school, and her home life isn’t any better, with Mommy Dearest physically, emotionally, and sexually abusing her. Having been kicked out of school, she joins an alternative classroom especially for troubled teens learning to read and write. At first she’s apprehensive, but with some nudging from her no-nonsense teacher (Paula Patton), Precious discovers that there is something more to life than that which the system has forced upon her.
The troubles that befall Precious are horrifying; burdens that I would not wish upon my worst enemy. Perhaps saddest of all is the fact that there are young women out in the world who face nearly identical horrifying situations, without any possibility of rescue. However, this film is not real life; it is a film. And as horrifying event occurs after horrifying event, the realism evaporates quickly. By the time the film’s closing credits roll, the awfulness of Precious’ situation simply seems ridiculous. Director Daniels just keeps piling it on; as if he believes that it keeps increasing the film’s power. Sometimes less truly is more.
Throughout the film, Precious escapes into her fantasies, in which she is white and skinny, with a light-skinned boyfriend, worldwide fame and unequalled adoration. During one of her fantasy sequences, she imagines being photographed for a fashion magazine. Briefly (but not so briefly that you can’t notice it), a clapperboard appears in front of the camera indicating that the photo shoot has been led by Lee Daniels himself. Perhaps it seems like an insignificant point, but it speaks volumes. Why would Precious fantasise about being photographed by Daniels, a filmmaker who she would have never heard of? It cannot be denied that the shot is a shout out to himself. Much like Peter Jackson sticking himself in the middle of The Lovely Bones, all it does is serve to remove the viewer and remind them that this film is “directed by Lee Daniels”. He adds garish touches to all these fantasies, eventually even stretching out into the so-called ‘real world’ of Precious’ life.
Thankfully, Sidibe holds it all together with defiant restraint in the face of Daniel’s obtrusive filmmaking. She is subtle, devastating, and somehow charming and sweet in the face of all this horror. Mo’Nique is also earning some (not undeserved) Oscar attention for her performance, but it’s not quite the revelation that Sidibe is. They are also assisted, impressively, by performers in small roles, including Mariah Carey as a world-weary social worker, Lenny Kravitz as a kindly nurse and Xosha Roquemore as Precious’ mouthy friend Jo Ann.
Precious won the audience award at Sundance back in January 2009, and has since ridden a wave of critical acclaim in America on its way to six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. No longer the ‘indie darling’, Precious arrives on Australian shores atop a veritable mountain of hype. We no longer have the opportunity to discover the film; only to verify (or disprove) the praise. I write this as a disclaimer, because I do not want people to assume that I am not rapturous in my acclaim because it did not meet my unreasonable expectations. A film should never have to live up to the hype; it either affects you or it doesn’t. If it made you laugh, it was funny. If it scared you, it was scary. If it touched you, it was touching. Sadly, Precious did not touch me. In the past year, I have been deeply touched by films about an old man attempting to fulfil a final promise to his wife, an aging rock band trying for one last shot at greatness, and a smarmy corporate downsizer who learns that a life of isolation isn’t a life at all. By comparison, the story of Precious’ struggle should have yanked at my heartstrings like nothing else.
But, as mentioned, despair does not a great film make. That’s not to say that Precious is not very good, because it is. The cast are able, and willing, led by the spectacular Sidibe as our titular heroine. However, Daniels seems intent on impeding the work of his fine cast by leaving his directorial fingerprints all over the film in the most obtrusive, and frankly, annoying, ways. I’m not saying that a director should not make their mark on a film; the greats always do. But the director should never let their ego get in the way of the film’s success, and sadly, the film shifts away from being about Precious and eventually becomes a film about Daniels.