Monday, January 4, 2010

Precious: A Review Based On Precious: Based On the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire

Precious Jones, 16-years-old, obese, illiterate, pregnant for the second time, living in inner-city squalor with her monstrous mother, has had a hard life. The victim of perpetual familial and societal abuse, it’s amazing that she has any drive within her at all. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, already much heralded for her performance, does a remarkable job of disappearing into her frame so, despite usually being the largest person on screen, Precious is hiding within her own skin, constantly squinting and scowling as if she is afraid to let others get too close to her. That fear is certainly well founded, given the horribly hellish treatment she has endured from those who claim to love her. The movie that tells her story, the unwieldy titled Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, is a button-pusher and a grueling watch, to be sure, but while it’s almost saved by its indomitable title character and a host of fine acting, it’s ultimately undone by its director.

The first film directed by Lee Daniels was the queasy exploitation thriller Shadowboxer. One of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, it’s a queasy mixture of in-your-face stylistic flourishes – odd color schemes, whiplash editing – and monstrous inanity that cavalierly mixes brutal abuse and violence in a volatile and absurd plot that, at its most sensical, casts Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding, Jr. as a mother-and-son assassin team. Thankfully Daniels hasn’t brought his full bag of noxious tricks to the table here, but, given the nature of the extreme child abuse occurring on screen, not much exaggeration is needed to make the necessary points.

Unfortunately, exaggerate he does, self-importantly rubbing the audience’s faces in the depravity. Luckily the movie calms down after a while, settling in to a subtler groove that, while still hard to watch, is only occasionally spurred into exaggerated grotesquery, once Precious is finally moved to an alternative school and begins to receive support and encouragement from a luminous, saintly teacher (played gorgeously by Paula Patton) and a compassionate social worker (played by Mariah Carey, the most endurable she’s ever been). But until that point, Daniels foregrounds the abuse, shooting it in a nauseating style. Certainly, Mo’Nique gives a whirlwind of a performance as the tyrannical mother, but the performance, the events, and the set-design would be strong enough to stand on their own without constant sensationalized direction.

 Viewers will have their own tipping point where the onscreen depravity becomes unbearable. Will it be when a massive sweating belly in a rape scene is cross-cut with shots of frying fatty foods? Will it be when Precious steals a bucket of fried chicken and we get a close up of her greasy chin as she gobbles it up? Will it be the scene that immediately follows in which she throws up the stolen chicken with explicitly chunky vomit? Or maybe it will be the scene in which Mo’Nique drops a newborn baby? Or the scene where Precious rolls down the stairs while holding the baby, every thump wickedly amplified?

Still, Precious is an impressive character, and it’s easy to root for her. The characterizations ring slightly true; unfortunately there are some in this country who are living lives closer to hers than we would like to admit, despite the presentation here leaning towards stereotyping. The scenes in the alternative school, especially Precious’s interactions with her classmates and teacher, are welcome respites to her home life, calming sequences with humor, hope, warmth and love amidst the hardships. Precious wants to change her circumstances, but realizes it will be hard work. It’s a relief to see her slowly finding a support system that’s more tangible than her gaudy fantasy sequences.

But this is a movie that presses its message too hard, not allowing breathing, or thinking, room for an audience. Daniels knows exactly what he wants us to feel and think and goes after it with single-minded determination, ending up with a movie that’s often grueling to watch and intellectually shallow. The movie’s a classic example of bungled execution. There’s no interest in actually digging in to the real emotions of the situations presented. It’s a movie that just wants to provoke, to push buttons and make you squirm, gasp, and laugh. It’s an absurdly surface treatment of potentially deep topics.

There’s a scene late in the film in which Mo’Nique’s character finally gets to open up delivering a harrowing monologue that’s more involving and disgusting than any of the visualized abuse that occurs up to that point. It’s what the movie should have been, more reserved and observant with a quieter power instead of loud and uncomfortable with every emotion pounded into the crowd. The story is powerful enough that my train of thought would have arrived to the emotions naturally without Daniels greasing the tracks. It’s an uncomfortable and grueling clash of intentions and execution.

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