I really wanted to like Precious. Everyone is talking about it this awards season as the movie to beat. It’s been a festival favorite. Oprah produced it, etc…
And it is definitely a good film. But it’s certainly nothing like “the movie of the year.”
Precious is the story of an obese, illiterate 16-year-old black girl in Harlem with a lot of problems. Her mother abuses her in every sense of the word. Her father rapes her (and gets her pregnant twice). She is HIV-positive. Her firstborn child has Down syndrome. And the list goes on… Her life is bleaker than you can possibly imagine.
The film does its darndest to rub our faces in the squalor and pain of Precious’ life, and indeed it succeeds. We cringe, grimace, shout at the screen in horror (the middle-aged Oprah-watching white woman next to me shouted “Oh my God!” at least a dozen times during the film), and wonder when and if things will get better for Precious.
Eventually—like, by the very end of the movie—Precious takes some steps (with the help of her nice lesbian teacher and a social worker played by Mariah Carey) to improve her condition. She takes ownership of her life and grabs hold of the faint light at the end of the tunnel represented by her getting a GED. The movie ends with Precious having escaped the horrors, thank God. We can leave the theater feeling okay about the world, after having seen it at its ugliest for the better part of two hours. We are empowered, inspired, hopeful. Hooray for the triumph of the human spirit! Precious: you go girl! Oprah: Thank you for reminding us about the resiliency of humanity.
I’m probably being a little too cynical. The movie does have value for showing how one might recover from a life of tragedy and abuse. It does offer us a model of how education, friendship, and determination can help turn a life around.
But my problem with Precious is not that I disagree with what it’s trying to do or what “lessons” it is trying to convey. My problem is with the execution.
Precious is overwrought and clunky. There are needlessly incongruous “fantasy” sequences dropped in throughout the film that feel tonally and stylistically abrasive; the editing/pace feels occasionally haphazard; and sometimes Lee Daniels’ choices feel not just heavy-handed but downright graceless. A scene of Precious absconding with a bucket of fried chicken and running down the street shoving greasy chicken in her mouth, for example, plays for laughs but lacks any true empathy or nuance.
A film like this would be more effective, I think, without such an ungainly commitment to in-your-face shock value. It’s a shocking-enough subject matter without the scenes of fried chicken larceny. Flags should be raised when the award for subtlety in your film goes to Mariah Carey.
That said, Precious is worth seeing. Though far from perfect, it’s an interesting and provocative look inside the depths of a life that is familiar to too many in this world. We should watch it to empathize; We should watch it to remember that people like Precious exist everywhere, and that they need our love.