“Precious” Lumbers, Stumbles, Staggers — And Soars

Posted: November 21, 2009 in movies
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"Precious" Movie Poster

All the stars were lined up against this one as far as your humble (or so I always say) reviewer was concerned. It’s the latest “indie sensation, ” a Sundance smash with all kinds of “buzz.”  It’s based on a novel written by a pseudonymous one-named author and purportedly features a powerhouse performance by an equally pseudonymous one-named painfully unfunny “iconic” comedienne. It features supporting performances from not one, but  two music industry heavyweights (and if there’s one thing I can’t abide the very existence of, my friends, it’s rock stars).    And to top it all off, it’s executive-produced by two of the most loathsome media moguls this side of Rupert Murdoch, namely Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry.

In short, I walked in expecting a tear-jerker with a tiresome “empowerment” theme heavy-handedly tacked on at the end given the “philosophical” predilections of the mega- powers that be behind this film. And then there’s the already- thoroughly-recounted backstory of the title character herself : Claireece “Precious” Jones is sixteen, morbidly obese,  functionally illiterate, pregnant for the second time by her father (her first child has Down’s Syndrome), and endures a nightmare existence in a Harlem shithole apartment with her physically, emotionally, and (at least hinted at) sexually abusive welfare cheat of a mom , who sounds for all intents and purposes like a ghetto version of Cinderella’s wicked stepmother on steroids, forcing her daughter to wait on her hand and foot in “exchange” for a constant stream of uber-degradation. All in all, it sounds like a laundry list of every single rotten-ass thing in the world dumped into one (admittedly very large) flesh-and-blood vessel.

Oh, how wrong I can be. I say that because “Precious” (or to refer to it accurately by its painfully verbose official title, “Precious : Based On The Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire”) is quite probably the best goddamn movie you’ll see all year.

Gabourey Sidibe as Precious

First, let’s get the single-most distressing particular out of the way. Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry both signed on as absentee “executive producers” after the film was in the can and after it wowed audiences at Sundance to such an extent that they knew they’d have a hit on their hands if they could attach their names to it in order to help secure it widespread distribution, which they were quickly able to do through the auspices of Lionsgate. Their actual influence on the on-screen product itself, then, is completely nonexistent, apart from apparently (and quite wisely) nudging Daniels to change the name from “Push” in order to avoid confusion with the sci-fi flick of the same name that came out earlier this year (and speaking of titles, might I just say that Daniels’ decision to run the opening credits in the ummm — literally-challenged style in which his protagonist would transribe them herself is a brilliant tone-setter).  Anyway, you can breathe a sigh of relief now if, like me, you’re not a huge fan of Oprah’s new-age self-help sermonizing or Perry’s put-your-trust-in-God-style “solutions” for all of life’s problems. There’s no trace of either to be found here.

The main creative powers behind this unflinchingly honest slice of genuinely harrowing urban realism are director Lee Daniels (a former producer himself —  and no stranger to controversial material given that he was responsible for both “Monster’s Ball” and “The Woodsman” — who got into directing with the little-seen “The Shadowboxer” a few years back, making this his sophomore effort behind the camera), and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher, who have adapted the novel by Sapphire (a former Harlem-area teacher turned novelist and poet) with a refreshing directness that’s as admirable as it is unpretentious. Really, though, this is an actor’s film, and there isn’t one performance in here that’s anything less than spectacularly authentic. Daniels cast a wide net, from the aforementioned superstars of the music industry (namely Mariah Carey as the terrifically understated been-there-seen-all-that social worker, Ms. Weiss, and Lenny Kravitz as the sorta-hip-but-not-disarmingly-or-for-that-matter-distractingly-so Nurse John, who attends to Precious during her hospital stay after delivering her baby) to supporting-role veterans (the luminous Paula Patton as tough-but-kindly remedial school teacher Blu Rain — yes, really) to comedy stalwarts (Mo’Nique as the thoroughly wretched Mary, the previously-mentioned matriarch outta hell) to complete unknowns (right-off-the-streets newcomer Gabourey Sidibe as the titular protagonist herself, who skipped college for the day (she’s 26) to try out for the part on a whim and beat out 400 other contenders for the role,  finding herself cast literally less than an hour after her audition) and gave them all the trust and freedom to develop their characters  in whatever way felt right to them. The results are uniformly astounding without exception, and it’s no stretch at all to say that this is the best-acted film in recent memory.

Not to sound too gut-wrenchingly pretentious, but Sidibe as Precious is a straight-up revelation.  Painfully isolated within herself, her every movement an unconsciously-crafted defense mechanism designed to protect her very survival, she’s reflexively stoic and preternaturally cautious, yet still brightly inquisitive and not without some glimmer of realization that a better life is, somehow, possible even if she has no idea of how to get there. As apparently contradictory as this no doubt sounds, Sidibe is able to convey it all through her movements, demeanor, and overall affect to such a degree that you’d think she wasn’t even acting at all, so thoroughly complete is her realization of this multi-faceted character. Combined with Daniels’ (generally, although at times he does slide into different cinematic styles and visual themes, particularly during Precious’ numerous retreats into fantasy life, which she tends to project herself into when seriously awful shit — like her father raping her — is happening) naturalistic filming style, the overall effect is downright documentarian in its realism. She speaks very little on the whole (moreso as she opens up as the story progresses) but communicates volumes with every movement, gesture, even glance.  Hand her the Oscar now and get it over with.

And speaking of Oscars, the other ultra-noteworthy performance here is, of course, from Mo’Nique, who is at least as good as everyone has been saying, conveying with blunt honesty a sordid and soul-destroying inner rage that knows no outlet but formless and senseless violent physical and emotional outbursts directed at the easiest and most available target —  that being, of course, her daughter. She feels no sympathy for the incestuous abuse Precious has suffered, but rather blames her for “stealing her man, ” and is even — get this — jealous of the fact that this so-called “man” has fathered more children with their daughter than he did with her. She doesn’t want Precious to go to school and pull herself up out of her situation, she wants her to “go down to the welfare” and bring the check she’ll get there home to her. She has no grandmotherly love for Precious’ oldest, Down Syndrome-afflicted child and calls the baby a freak and an animal — yet a freak and an animal that she’s more than willing to coddle and pamper when her case worker from the welfare office is over on a home visit (then cruelly, and yes literally, toss aside the minute said case worker is out the door). And while all this does, indeed, make her a monster, she delivers an astonishingly raw, no-holds-barred,  bravura soliloquy towards the end at a meeting with Ms. Weiss (and Carey simply shines in this role, it must be said — she’s downright unrecognizable in her unglamorous earthiness, speaks as plainly as she looks, and is quite clearly both overwhelmed and used to being so — she can be officially forgiven for “Glitter” at this point, I would think. Oh, and watch for her absolutely golden nonchalance when Precious hits her with a question that Carey herself has endured countless times) that lays bare her own pain, confusion, and abject misery in a way that goes some way toward explaining why she is the way she is while in no way making her any more sympathetic. Quite the contrary, in fact — understanding her (partially, at least) only makes her cruelty all the more hideous. Never less than directly, forcefully, and consequentially immediate, Mo’Nique gives a performance for the ages.  Again, the Academy can just hand the little bald statuette over right now and be done with it.

Nope, I didn't recognize her either --- Mariah Carey as Ms. Weiss in "Precious"

Precious’s story is no doubt terrifying in the truest sense of the word, but it’s not without hope. When she’s expelled from school for being pregnant (did I mention this movie is set in 1987?) she is cajoled by her former principal into enrolling (against her mother’s wishes, of course) at one of those newfangled-at-the-time charter schools with a typically appropriate cheeseball name, “Each One, Teach One.” There she finds something of a support network for the first time in her life with a group of equally-illiterate “throwaway youth” students and a genuinely concerned teacher (Patton’s Blu Rain) who make the attempt to get through to her and she slowly, cautiously, stumblingly reciprocates their trust. Just as she’s  starting to come out of her shell, though, and safely delivers her baby, her mother hits her with the tirade to end all tirades when she gets home from the hospital, and she finds herself without a home when she needs one the most. The resolve Ms. Rain shows in getting her into some type of emergency housing  well past the eleventh hour is downright heroic, and soon Precious is back to slowly getting on her feet after arguably her biggest setback yet.

The worst, however, is to come, as some months after getting her into her halfway-house living situation, and progressing from a second grade to an eighth grade reading level at school, dastardly mother Mary shows up and delivers some news that provides the single-biggest cinematic gut punch of this young millennium. Without giving away what it is,  I’ll just say that it both underscores and overshadows all that remains in the film, and when Precious finally confronts her mother in the previously-mentioned scene in Ms. Weiss’s office, she does, yes, leave with some small sense of accomplishment and, dare I say it, “empowerment,” but even when she lets out a cautiously knowing  smile that comes from somewhere deep within while walking away with her two children at the very end in the closest thing she may ever know to triumph, the future is still uncertain, at best, for this extraordinarily resilient young lady. She’s gone some way towards turning her life around, but the future is unwritten and the darkest cloud of all (again, I absolutely won’t give away the details) still looms over her head. We’re not left with a strong sense tat it’s something she’ll be able to ultimately cope with, but at least we know she won’t be facing it, or any other tribulations to come, completely alone, and she’s also got a bit, just a bit mind you, more inner strength to see it through than she had before. It won’t be enough, but it’s a step in the right direction, and even though, in a voice-over segment early on Precious states “Ms. Rain says the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step — whatever the fuck that means,” we do hope she has indeed caught on to the import of that statement by the time the film is finished.

Daniels and Fletcher are  to be congratulated here. In lesser hands this would threaten to be Lifetime movie-of-the-week material, so endless is the litany of degradations suffered the title character and so simple would it be to twist the ending into something artificially uplifting. And the structure of the story is such that just when one heart-breaking situation is beginning to be partially dealt with, another pops up. It would be easy to turn this, therefore, into a pathos-laden guiltapalooza, designed to exploit the sensibilities of a largely liberal  and quite likely largely white audience through cheap and overstated emotional manipulation (truth be told, notorious contrarian Armond White has leveled something like that very charge at the film, but given that he’s tried to make hay out of the fact that all the characters who help Precious are lighter-skinned while all the characters who hurt her are darker-skinned — never noticing, apparently, the fact  that the lead character herself is quite dark, rather torpedoing his entire argument about the film’s supposed hidden racial subtext — and that he thought crap like “Transformers 2” and “Norbit” were good movies, it’s pretty safe to say his views are based on nothing more than a reflection of his own rather desperate need to be noticed in today’s crowded market of cinematic opinion at any cost), but they have too much respect for their characters, their material, and their audience to go that easy route. Yes, you should probably bring some extra Kleenex with you to the theater, since there are a few moments where there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, my own included. But it’s in no way schmaltzy or overstated, a la Spielberg’s “The Color Purple.” The tears you shed here will be honest ones, that flow naturally based on the honest, no-frills presentation of dark, painful, and all-too-real subject matter. And there are quite a few lighter moments, as well, with some genuinely surprising humor and levity thrown into the mix at unlikely times, much as often happens in life itself.

In short, the story of Precious in not one of wildly exaggerated highs and lows, but of a real girl, living a real life, in a real world too many of us ignore all to often. There are a hell of a lot of Preciouses out there. This is the first time their story has been told in anything like a way that does them justice, not by painting them as hapless victims or as noble martyrs on the altar of the undeserved economic excesses that the rest of us enjoy (and, frankly, probably don’t deserve — I don’t know about you but in terms of sheer human value I think one Claireece “Precious” Jones is worth a hundred, or a thousand, or hell, a million corporate CEOs or Wall Street robber barns — if that makes me a bleeding-heart liberal pinko commie, so fucking be it), but by showing them to be exactly what they are — people, just like all of us, with the same fears, hopes, aspirations, and potential as any of us, but with a hell of a lot harder road to walk toward getting where they want to go.

A last nod to some of the criticism that’s been directed at this movie, this time from right-wing quarters — yes, it’s probably true that only an African American filmmaker could say some of the things this flick is saying and “get away with it.” It’s called cultural context, people. Precious dreams of having a light-skinned boyfriend and in one scene even fantasizes about being a blond white girl. This is not the same thing as saying she is ashamed of being black. It’s an acknowledgment that she wishes for a life, and an identity, completely different than the one she’s always known, and given her circumstances, who can blame her? Yes, her circumstances are, at their core, all about economics rather than race (and one hopes that, naturally bright as Precious is, she’ll eventually come to realize this — am I the only one who’d love to see a sequel where Precious really goes after those  most responsible for her victimization  and bombs a bank headquarters or a Wall Street investment firm? Okay, I guess I am.), but she’s a sixteen-year-old kid, and a poorly-educated one at that. It’s quite common for children in these types of circumstances to wish to have as dramatically different a life as possible, and that often extends to the most personal and central aspects of their very identity. But, yes, if a white filmmaker were to attempt to convey the exact same message, there would be an uncomfortable subtext of “lots of black people secretly wish they were white” attached to it. That’s just the way it goes, and that’s nothing to be exasperated about, so calm the fuck down my fellow white people. This bitching about how  “a white director would be called a racist if he made this movie” is nothing more than the cinematic equivalent of the tired and frankly stupid old argument around the use of  “the ‘N’ word” that essentially boils down to “if they can say it, why can’t we?” Frankly, those who engage in such useless “debates” do nothing more than sound like whining racists who still want to call black people n*****s and are upset that they can’t get away with it anymore. Shut up or grow up — or, better yet, both. Again, cultural context is all-important here, and we don’t all have the same life experiences.  If you can’t recognize that the message is not the same depending on who’s delivering it — and for what purpose — then you don’t have the intellectual maturity to recognize actual reality, and the fact that in  said actual reality the messenger to a great extent shapes and defines the message; the two are not inseperable.  Nor should they be.

“Precious” is not an easy film to watch by any means, whether you can directly relate to her story or not. It’s by turns heartbreaking, poignant, harrowing,  and even joyful. It’s not pessimistic, to be certain, yet it’s not forcedly optimistic, either. It’s just plain real. It asks all the right questions in just the right away and provides no easy answers.  From start to finish it’s true to itself, to its characters, and to their story. It’s vital and it’s  necessary. And it’s long overdue.

Something this powerfullly, unflinchingly honest only comes around once in a great while. This flick will rip your heart out and hand it back to you in pieces. Putting them together again is up to you. The hard work always is. Just ask Claireece “Precious” Jones — she knows all about that.

Comments
  1. Greetings!

    Love the review. I read the book–ONCE–and that book, out of almost 40 years of reading, was the only book to make me cry like a goddamned baby. I don’t mean, “Oh, boo-hoo…” I mean “WAHHH!!!!” (Thankfully, I was alone!) I’ve toyed with the thought of watching this movie, but looking at clips, this movie is too good to NOT pass up. Jay-sus! Reading and imagining was hard enough, but to look at it on screen? Hell, I’m getting teary-eyed just thinking about it, and I read the book when it first came out!

    • trashfilmguru (Ryan C.) says:

      Hope you end up enjoying the film as much as you did the book! If “enjoying” is the word we want to use —

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