The reviews are in for Precious, and though some critics object to director Lee Daniels' "need to shove the reality of Precious' life in our faces," most say it's a brilliant film about hideous truths Hollywood usually ignores.
Precious, which opens today in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta, is based on the novel Push by Sapphire and executive-produced by Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, who came on board after its screening at Sundance. The film is set in late 80s Harlem, where 16-year-old Claireece Precious Jones (Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe) is facing more hardships than it seems one person should ever endure. Her mother Mary (Mo'Nique) physically and emotionally abuses her and she's pregnant by her drug addict father for the second time. She's illiterate and mostly quiet (at first), but has an elaborate inner life the film portrays in fantasy sequences. When Precious is threatened with expulsion because she's pregnant she's offered the chance to transfer to an alternative school. Her new teacher, Blu Rain (Paula Patton), and Mrs. Weiss (Mariah Carey), a social worker, help Precious begin to deal with the abuse she's suffering.
While a less elegantly done movie could have fallen into several syrupy clichés about underprivileged kids learning to love themselves with the help of an attentive mentor, critics say the film avoids these pitfalls. The story is inspirational and (as Latoya writes) surprisingly hopeful, but it doesn't gloss over the ugliness of Precious' life and she doesn't overcome a lifetime of abuse in two hours.
Critics mention all the main leads as Oscar contenders, particularly Sidibe and Mo'Nique. Happily, most of the reviews focus on Sidibe's incredible performance rather than her size, with the notable exception of David Edelstein's New York Magazine review, which some found infuriating. A few critics question why all of the positive protagnoists are portrayed by light-skinned actors and Slate's review calls the depiction of Precious' reality "poverty porn". A roundup, below.
Precious is genuinely and irresistibly inspirational. If the filmmaking weren't so skillful and the acting weren't so consistently brilliant, you might mistake this production for a raw slice of life from a Third World country where movies can still be instruments of moral instruction and social change. If Ms. Sidibe weren't playing the title role, it's hard to imagine what Precious would be. She doesn't play it, she invades and conquers it with concentrated energy and blithe humor.
Sidibe is heartbreaking as Precious, that poor girl. Three other actresses [Mo'Nique, Paula Patton, and Mariah Carey] perform so powerfully in the film that academy voters will be hard-pressed to choose among them... This casting looks almost cynical on paper, as if reflecting old Hollywood days when stars were slipped into "character roles" with a wink. But Lee Daniels, the director, didn't cast them for their names, and actually doesn't use any of their star qualities. He requires them to act. Somehow he was able to see beneath the surface and trust that they had within the emotional resources to play these women, and he was right... The film is a tribute to Sidibe's ability to engage our empathy. Her work is still another demonstration of the mystery of some actors, who evoke feelings in ways beyond words and techniques. She so completely creates the Precious character that you rather wonder if she's very much like her.
What Daniels seems to recognize, perhaps even unconsciously, is that even though this is supposed to be Precious' story, for most of it she's a passive, if sensitive, receptor: The forces swirling around her provide most of the drama's dynamics. And within that context, Sidibe's performance is understated but alert. It's not her line delivery that gets to you, but the cautious curve of her smile, a smile in which she indulges only occasionally. When we see her going off to her first day of school, the blue plastic beads she wears around her neck are a dash of visual confidence, offsetting the shyness of her lumbering carriage.
I'm not judging girls who look like Sidibe in life, but her image onscreen is jarring to the point of being transgressive, its only equivalent to be seen in John Waters's pointedly outrageous carnivals. Her head is a balloon on the body of a zeppelin, her cheeks so inflated they squash her eyes into slits. Her expression is either surly or unreadable. Even with her voice-over narration, you're meant to stare at her ebony face and see nothing. The movie is saying that she's not an object, but the way that Sidibe is directed she becomes one. It's only in a couple of heavy-handed fantasy sequences (she emerges from a theater in a bright-red gown to popping flashbulbs) that her eyes are windows to the soul.
In her first dramatic role, the comedian Mo'Nique acts with such force that she burns a hole in the screen. Her Mary is raging and defeated, a woman who treats Precious as a slave - and I don't use the word lightly, since part of the film's power is its perception that these two are living out patterns of cruelty that go back for generations. Their agony has roots. What's terrifying about the abuse here is how casually it's accepted as a fact of life, by both perpetrator and victim.
Mary, brimming with rage, thwarted love and plain meanness, is a character bound to provoke discomfort. Even otherwise misogynistic hip-hop artists will pay tribute to the heroism of African-American mothers, and to see that piety so thoroughly dispensed with is downright shocking. Other provocations are more subtle but no less pointed. There are virtually no men in this movie. Precious's father is glimpsed briefly in flashbacks of his assaults on her, and in the fantasy sequences that provide escape from her pain Precious hobnobs with handsome boys, but otherwise the only male character of significance is a hospital worker played by Lenny Kravitz. Otherwise, Precious's cosmos, for better and for worse, is a universe of women: the social worker (Mariah Carey scrubbed of any vestige of divahood); the teacher, Ms. Rain; her co-worker in the remedial education program, played by the comedian and talk show host Sherri Shepherd; and Precious's fellow students. These characters all can be seen as surrogate mothers, aunts and sisters, who together provide Precious with a more functional family (to say the least) than what she has at home. But their love is also enabled by institutions and government policies. An unstated but self-evident moral of Precious, set during Ronald Reagan's presidency and based on a book published in the year of Bill Clinton's welfare reform, is that government can provide not only a safety net, but also, in small and consequential ways, a lifeline.
Like the book, the dialogue is graphic and politically incorrect. Precious' first child, a daughter, is called Little Mongo, because of her Down syndrome. When the teenager finds one of her teachers is a "straight-up lesbian," she says so before going on to list all the things homosexuals haven't done to her. With Mary, meanwhile, it's not so much the words themselves that shock, though it sometimes seems her vocabulary doesn't extend beyond four-letter words, but the molten lava underneath them.
Precious ... manages the task of being both heartbreaking and heart-warming, all without resorting to the kind of manipulation so often evident in dramas about underprivileged kids trying to improve themselves. There are pitfalls inherent in this kind of story, but indie director Lee Daniels sidesteps them, crafting a feature that is both emotionally honest and stirring. Precious spends time in the urban trenches that are often used as a colorful backdrop for other less true films; here, they are integral to the essence of the characters, places where acts of supreme horror are dismissed matter-of-factly. Ultimately, Precious is a story of one young woman's embrace of self-worth in these circumstances, but that discovery does not come without a price.
When I tell people how good this movie is - and I can't shut up about it - they flash me the stink eye. As in "Yeah, right, like I need to sink into a depression coma for two hours watching a fat, illiterate, HIV-positive Harlem girl get knocked up (twice) by her daddy, brutally battered by her mother and laughed at by a world eager to pound abuse on her 16-year-old ass." Won't you dickheads be surprised. Precious ... tunnels inside your head, leaves you moved like no film in years and then lifts you up in ways you don't see coming. Despite the pain at the story's core, the movie has a spirit that soars.
Hothouse melodrama one moment, kitchen-sink (and frying-pan-to-the-head) realism the next, with eruptions of incongruous slapstick throughout, this may be Daniels's stab at finding a cinematic analog for the novel's inventive, naïf-art language-a film style, like Precious's writing style, seemingly being made up as it goes along. Yet even when the movie is at its most schizoid, Precious still packs a wallop. What Daniels lacks as a craftsman, he makes up for in his willingness to put the lives of abused and defeated black women on the screen with brute-force candor and a lack of sentimentality... Precious is less about overcoming adversity than about survival-a battle the movie does not begin to pretend can be won in two hours of screen time.
Damien Paul's edgy and effervescent screenplay propels us into the inner recesses of primitive survival. It's a magnificent distillation, both succinct and eruptive. Director Lee Daniels sagely navigates the story from Precious' cavernous inner world through her synaptic flashes of fantasy that momentarily allow her to transcend her personal hell. As Precious, Sidibe is superb, allowing us to see the inner warmth and beauty of a young woman who, to her world's cruel eyes, might seem monstrous. As Precious' hideous mother, Mo'Nique is cruelty incarnate. It's an astonishingly powerful performance.
Blu Rain['s] powers of uplift feel like make-believe. She is a vision of tolerant gentleness, who wears a new set of soft fabrics every day and plays Scrabble in the evening with her equally lovely lesbian partner. "They talk like TV stations I don't watch," Precious says, but that tart line is not borne out by the film, which drinks in Ms. Rain without demur. The same goes for the fantasy sequences-hugely ill-advised dream clips, showing a richly clad Precious at a movie première or slow-dancing with a hunk. One of them even finds a slender white girl gazing back at her from the bedroom mirror. What we have here is a fouled-up fairy tale of oppression and empowerment, and it's hard not to be ensnared by its mixture of rank maleficence and easy reverie. The gap between being genuinely stirred and having your arm twisted, however, is narrower than we care to admit.
It's not that there isn't anything to like about Precious, which at its best resembles its heroine: observant, large-spirited, and brave. The director, Lee Daniels puts on his hip boots and wades into grimmer territory than any recent film I can think of, and his fearless leading ladies, Mo'Nique and Sidibe, wade right in with him. But Daniels' methodical commitment to abjection, his need to shove the reality of Precious' life in our faces and wave it around till we acknowledge its awfulness, winds up robbing the audience (and, to some extent, the actors) of all agency. Daniels is not above cutting from an image of incestuous rape to a shot of greasy pork sizzling on the stove: Her father treats her like meat, get it? In its eagerness to drag us through the lower depths of human experience, Precious leaves no space for the audience to breathe or to draw our own conclusions. For a film about empowerment and self-actualization, it wields an awfully large cudgel... Daniels and Fletcher no doubt intended for their film to lend a voice to the kind of protagonist too often excluded from American movie screens: a poor, black, overweight single mother from the inner city. But in offering up their heroine's misery for the audience's delectation, they've created something uncomfortably close to poverty porn.
Precious challenges and assaults every nerve ending. It pushes the viewer to see people that are mostly invisible in the culture (and onscreen) and humanizes them. But Precious is by far not a perfect film. The script by first time screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher is really far fetched and paints a picture that is only there black and white (not talking about color here) and full of stereotypes. For example, the women who brutalize Precious are dark skinned while the women who help her are lighter skinned. What does that mean? Is it intentional? What if anything is he trying to say? What is most missing from the film is nuance and gray areas and that is clearly the directing choice of Lee Daniels. He wants you to think in extremes because Precious' world is extreme.
Precious is an achievement that will take a long time for me to shake. Even if I didn't like what I saw or heard at times, I'm glad someone like Daniels is out there making movies that move me to such a degree and remind me that there are people and things in the world that can still shock me into feeling something about a character and a film as deeply as this film did. This is a story of a survivor that doesn't fall back on big speeches, swelling music, angels and kittens; there's very little about this movie that would qualify as "feel good." But I did feel something after seeing it, and that's a rarity these days.
Earlier: Long Day's Journey Into Night: Reading Push, watching Precious
Precious Reactions Interesting, Infuriating
Push Comes To Shove: Precious Pushback
What We Talk About When We Talk About Precious