Monday, December 21, 2009

Movies: "Precious"

Yesterday I reviewed "Brothers", an admirable work of surprising power.  Today, I share my views on "Precious', a movie that has received more attention than "Brothers", and which I had avoided, certain that the film itself could not live up to the emotional promise of its trailer.  Well, I am glad to say that "Precious" delivered a stunning emotional is a true vision of hell, one that exists maybe no further away than the closest big city.

Precious Clarice Jones is overweight, inarticulate, angry, and afraid, raped by her father (resulting in two pregnancies), and trapped in a home with a dangerously controlling and irrational mother.  This is a story of Precious' escape from despair through education, her courage to leave an oppressive homelife, and her journey into a world that keeps handing her one heartbreak after another.  Here is an individual who needs to reinvent herself in the most fundamental of ways, merely to survive.  The sad irony is that, by the end, it is implied that her effort may not have been enough.

The iconic film image of the year maybe the face of actress Gabourey Sidibe as Precious, in close profile, the rolls of flesh effectively covering her anguish.  This movie is a look into a world many of us turn away from, and while I admired the film rather than wholly embraced it, I am glad I took the chance; I was rewarded with a riveting emotional connection with a character I will never forget.  Director Lee Daniels elicits great work from all involved, especially from Sidibe; and also from Mo'Nique, who is nothing less than a revelation as the monster mother, who relieves her own deep feelings of inadequacy and loneliness by belittling and hurting her daughter. 

I was especially astounded by Mo'Nique's final scene in her confrontation with a social worker (wonderful work as well by Mariah Carey).  In a cunningly well-written monolog, she reveals layers of desperation and rage, morphing instantly from jealousy, to neediness, once pleading, then hateful, and actually succeeds in wringing some sympathy for her character.  She just might join the Oscar ranks of Shelly Winters' abusive-mother role in "A Patch of Blue". 

At one point in the film, a teacher uses the word "unrelenting".  That word perfectly describes the oppressive life Precious Jones must endure: Taunted on her way home from an unispiring public school; confined to a bleak ghetto apartment, the curtains perpetually drawn to keep out the light; a world of mindless TV and cooking and eating and insensitivity; of beatings and sexual abuse;  pregnant at 16-and already raising a child with Down's syndrome,  it is a world of no hope, with seemingly nowhere to go.

"Oppressive" is a word I keep coming back to when I think of the overall atmosphere.  Scenes within the apartment between Precious and her dangerously angry mother had me as anxious and apprehensive as scenes in Buffalo Bill's depraved cellar in "Silence of the Lambs".  (Later I dismissed the possibility that this was just a subliminal reaction to her name..."Precious" and  "Clarice" were also names used in "Lambs".)  The camerawork is tight, and the lighting and color render the setting as unattractive as a refuse heap.  Precious "escapes" the dreariness and emotional horror through "fantasies" inspired by images from her limited exposure to pop culture.  She imagines herself a glamorous star, or a model, or a member of a church choir.  My favorite of these is a funny and telling satire of DeSica's "Two Women", which Precious sees on television.  The sequence is filmed in black-and-white, and is spoken in Italian with English subtitles.  It is funny, but also poignant in that Precious' fantasies of a loving mother involve a kind-faced woman who still uses foul language and who still orders her to keep eating.

I enjoyed these eloquent stylistic touches, and the use of montage to create new meanings, as well as to lighten up this bleak portrait.  I was reminded of the ferment and experimentation of films of the '70's, when this kind of creativity was encouraged.

The title character is not always a passive victim.  Unable to speak whole sentences or project her voice from her large frame, she nevertheless has a surprising ability to protect herself, resorting to unexpected outbursts of violence, the only way she has learned to resolve differences. 

The film is completely absorbing once Precious is admitted to an alternative school, mentored by a no-nonsense teacher who demands that each girl in her class write each day.  We have come a long way from the "ghetto school" Sidney Poitier supervised in "To Sir With Love".  I did wonder why the film necessarily was set in 1987; maybe a modern story would be so beset with cell phones and texting that the plot would be stranded at the gate...or maybe because the AIDS virus, which provides a horribly moving plot twist, was new enough--and lethal enough--for viewers to draw their own conclusions about a resolution to the story that the movie leaves ambiguous.

Daniels might have encouraged Sibide to enunciate better while retaining the flavor of her inarticulate street-language vernacular.  She is often terribly difficult to understand, and this character needs to be heard clearly.  Also, I am weary of directors' current fascination with throw-up scenes....and if you're sensitive be warned.  It is almost never necessary to be explicit.  Suggestion is usually sufficient, and was all that was needed.

Those criticisms aside, I must finally describe my favorite sequence, a breathtaking show of emotion by Precious in the classroom.  After all she has been through, thinking she has finally escaped, she gets another life-altering bit of bad news, and is unable to cope and cannot work. She finally breaks down, completely vulnerable, and unburdens her emotions, convinced that she cannot be loved, that love has done nothing but hurt her.  Her teacher, caring yet firm, gives her a one-word bit of advice:  "Write", she says to Precious. 

I wept during that sequence, a scene which, to me, was worth the entire experience. 


  1. Wow. You've really captured the pain and artistic sensibility that is present in both of these films. You didn't miss a nuance. I'm impressed!

  2. Great job on this review, Tom! These urban coming-of-age dramas aren't normally my cup of tea, but from the weight of your review I have to say it's one of those special films that you owe it to your soul to experience. My daughter Lissa was also similarly impressed with the flick and gave it a rousing recommendation. When you have two film experts like you guys agreeing on a film I guess I can't go wrong, right? I'll definitely make the time to see this one.