Tambay’s Thoughts On Precious
The unbelievably high expectations many have for Precious will be to the film’s eventual detriment. It’s been the “must-see” black film of the year, since shocking the world by unexpectedly winning the audience prize at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Since then, it’s been nothing but good vibrations for the film and the team behind it, as it’s collected a plethora of awards, with a lot of talk amongst critics, of the film’s potential nods at next year’s Academy Awards – notably for its 2 stars, Gabourey Sidibe who plays the titular “Precious,” and actress/comedian Mo’Nique, her abusive mother, in a relationship that’s characterized by habitual violence and cruelty.
If the story as you know it sounds heartbreaking, it is – at least, as director Lee Daniels tells it, it wants to be. However, I expected much more. A film of this nature, and the subject matter it covers, should feel more like a punch in the gut. I wanted to be overwhelmed, and be really consumed with the characters and the story. However, it wasn’t what I’d hoped for, and needed, in order to really like the film; instead, it felt rather watered-down, and simplified; in fact, if it weren’t for the rich performance Mo’Nique gives, and of course the profanity, this could easily be an after-school special.
I wanted more of that kind of grittiness and uncompromising reality. This is a film about a young, illiterate, obese black girl, who suffers daily horrendous abuse from her mother, and is repeatedly raped by her mother’s boyfriend, and has 2 of his children, and more. Show me! Take me there… take me to that place. She’s suffering immensely, despite trying desperately to keep herself together; I wanted to really feel that suffering. I wanted to be really moved – not that there weren’t evocative moments; but either there weren’t enough of them, or those that were there weren’t weighty enough.
As I watched, I kept asking myself what Lee Daniels’ motives are… what he wants to say with the film… who he wants to reach with it. If he’s trying to be subversive, I’d say he fails on that front. If he’s trying to play on the guilt of white liberals, as if to say, “look at the monster you people helped create, now go do something for all the Precious girls out there,” I’m not so sure he succeeded there either. Although, maybe he does, because, thus far, most audiences who’ve seen the film, everywhere it’s played since its Sundance debut, have been white, since the festivals that it’s screened in have typically been those in which you’d find a minuscule number of black people in the audiences; and those blacks who are interested and can afford to attend these prominent festivals (Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, New York, etc, where tickets are $40 a piece), are definitely not the people represented in the movie itself. So, it does make one wonder about the praise the film has received from overwhelmingly white critics and audiences. In reading some of their reviews, words like “urban nightmare” and a “must-see portrait of life’s underprivileged” tell part of the tale. These are the kinds of “black films” that white liberal critics tend to fall in love with – the so-called gritty urban dramas that portray a world so unlike theirs, and that confirm, and even massage some of that obligation they might feel, but rarely ever really act on. I’m now even more interested in how black audiences receive the film when it opens across the country next month.
I should mention that it was good to see that Precious isn’t “saved” by the expected white teacher, or white social worker, but rather a collective of black people with a vested interest in seeing her succeed. However, as we’ve already heard, there’ve been concerns that the black men and women who come to Precious’s aid, are mostly of the light-skinned variety – Paula Patton’s teacher, Lenny Kravitz’s male nurse, and of course, Mariah Carey’s racially ambiguous social worker.
Precious lives in her head. There are several fantasy sequences, occurring when she’s most in need of an escape, which Lee Daniels handles rather poorly, I thought; visions of Precious singing on stages, walking down red carpets with a light-skinned boyfriend, and even seeing herself in the mirror as a white girl; those particular scenes were uncharacteristically hokey, and only really succeed at simplifying what should be Precious’s rather complex range of emotions, insecurities and desires to escape. I’d like to believe that there are much more subtle, yet on-the-nose methods to handle Precious’s moments of reverie. The decision-making by Daniels in those scenes was unfortunate, and there are quite a few, that by the 3rd or 4th one, I’d had enough of them.
In what could be described as a foreshadowing of events that will unfold in real life, and also more evidence of Daniels’ immature direction, there’s a scene in which a fairly large, unmissable poster of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf, hangs on a wall in the background of an apartment. The camera catches it, obviously intentionally, and as a kind of inside joke, I chuckled to myself, knowing that the film adaptation for the literary work (much like Sapphire’s Push) is also currently in production – a work that also is very much in that same oppressive vain that whites will likely “appreciate” and gush over, assuming Tyler Perry does a somewhat serviceable job.
Yet another head-scratching sequence involves a series of images of prominent historical African-African men and women, along with their voices and words, including a speech by Malcolm X, which float across windows, curtains and chalkboards in a classroom, as Precious sits in the center of the class, like a young apprentice, receiving wisdom from the wise sages that encircle her. Again, poorly handled. A completely useless scene that felt like it belonged in a completely different movie altogether.
Without a doubt, Mo’Nique gives the strongest performance, and I’d even say that she saves the film. There’s a scene towards the end of the movie in which she’s fighting to maintain control of herself, and watching her gradually unravel, with a kind of vulnerability you wouldn’t expect from her, is really one of those rare on screen moments that you’ll want to watch over, and that acting instructors will likely show their students in class. Definitely what you could call a tour de force performance, and certainly, she will be nominated for an Academy Award next year. Whether she wins, is anyone’s guess.
As for the rest of the performances… Gabourey Sidibe is mostly believable as Precious. With a protruding jawline, and barely visible eyes, her face speaks volumes, despite the fact that the character is mostly mute throughout the film. She gets the job done; however, any talk about her being an Academy Award favorite for “Best Actress” should be silenced immediately.
There are a handful of supporting characters who Precious comes in contact with on her journey. Daniels really should have taken a page from the Coen Brothers book on filmmaking, and given those roles to strong character actors who could have brought more to each role, and made the characters much more memorable, and, in consequence, improved on the quality of the film. It’s not that Paula Patton, Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey, and Sherri Shepherd are terrible in their respective roles; they were adequate; however, they could have been a lot better, and I think Daniels limited himself, and thus the film, by casting them. It’s such a strong literary work, so why not cast strong character actors to really give the film the oomph the story needs?
As heartbreaking as the movie wants to be, it also inspires to be hopeful, as, by the end of the film, equipped with the knowledge that her life might soon be ending, Precious becomes even more determined to pull herself out of the mire she lives in. So, kudos goes to Daniels and company for even attempting to bring Sapphire’s work to the screen. If it’s any consolation, likely somewhere out there, a girl in Precious’s predicament just might see the film and be influenced by it in some positive manner. It’s just a shame that, in my opinion, it doesn’t seem as if Daniels was really thinking about those real life girls, as he gave the film life.
My suggestion to those of you who will be seeing the film when it reaches theatres in November, is that you enter the theatre with reduced expectations, otherwise you will be disappointed.
I’d give it 2.5 out of 5 stars.
18 comments to Tambay’s Thoughts On Precious
View in: Mobile | Standard