Lee Daniels’ Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire is difficult to talk about, let alone sit through. Part memoir, part fantasy and part social deconstruction, the film deals in a grab bag of hot button social mores: poverty, racism, rape, incest, epidemics and education reform to name only a few. The director is literally playing with fire, yet, somehow, he has managed to make a feel-good movie. You heard me right.
Clarice Precious Jones lives in Harlem with her abusive mother. The year is 1987 and she is pregnant with her second child by her father. At 16, Precious is still in junior high school, until her pro-active principal recommends her for an alternative schooling program called Each One Teach One. It is here, with the help of a self-assured teacher and a hood-bred cadre of girls, that her journey of self-discovery begins. What does she discover? The same thing we know about ten minutes into the film: that her mother is a big ol’ B-word.
Mo’Nique’s performance has been lauded since the film’s premiere at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, but the comedian has gained ever more traction as awards season has ramped up. As Mary, the welfare leeching tormentor of the title character, she has given us a phenomenal peek at the other side of the line that separates good from evil. The worst villains are the ones whose motivations are easily understood. What is so damning about this portrait is that the further you get pulled into siding with Mary, the worse it makes you feel as a human.
Why go with a comedian, especially one as boisterous and unruly as Mo’nique, for this role? If I may indulge my darker side for a moment, I believe it is because the role is actually funny. Her endless rants, her unapologetic abuse of the welfare system, her physical dominance over her daughter all require a comedic agility that a classically trained dramatist may not have been able to pull off. She is not just a monster, she is a devolved woman. The world in which she lives has literally flipped her inside out. Up may as well be down for her; she is a comedic villain. Precious must find a way to navigate the same streets that undid her mother without going down the same path.
For all the deserved praise sent Mo’Nique’s way, the real person we have to thank is Lee Daniels for seeing the people he needed in each role and bringing their best out on screen. No one could have played Mary like Mo’Nique, but it takes a real talent to pull that out of her. The same rings true when it comes to Gabourey Sidibe as Precious. Similar to a hottie in a horror film, Ms. Sidibe gave herself over to Mr. Daniels, letting him literally throw just about everything at her. It isn’t until the end of the film, when the roots of a lesson have taken hold in her, that the actress is asked to do too much emoting. Instead, the world around Precious keeps colliding with her. The deadpan that she retains through all of it is phenomenal. The film would fall apart completely without it.
Technically, the film suffers from overuse of slow motion effects. As I have mentioned, the film dips into uncomfortable comedy at points. The truth is that you can’t have a comedy that is this heavy, so it seems someone, I’d like to think a studio head, has brought the slow motion effects in to temper the more raucous moments of the film. For example, when Mary tosses a piece of chicken at Precious early in the film, the point is made that this is an abusive home. However, we flip on the slow-mo and a dramatic refrain to point out that this is important, that this is scary. Without it we might be found laughing.
I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but Precious contains a masterfully executed sequence. Invoking Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Precious ascends the stairs to her apartment holding her newborn son. We know that her mother is a ticking time bomb and that a girl of her stature will have a tough time going up so many flights. Not missing an opportunity, Mr. Daniels with editor Joe Klotz drag out the sequence, ensuring racing hearts the whole way through. By the time she finally opens the door to the apartment, your blood will be at a boil just waiting for Mary to go off. It is phenomenal.
The real trouble with Precious is that the payoff isn’t necessarily worth the emotional roller coaster the film puts you through. Sure, by the end you will probably feel uplifted as our hero walks away with her head held high (spoiler?), but is it all worth it? Has Precious avoided a bleak future? While you may be inspired, you will probably come crashing back down to reality and wonder, for some time, whether or not you actually like the film. Overall, I can’t quite tell if this is a great film or not. It certainly has a lot going for it, but it feels more like a first film (it is Mr. Daniels’ second as director) than a masterpiece. Hopefully, we will see many exciting things from Lee Daniels in the future.