Sunday, July 3, 2011

Precious (2009)

Handle With Care

- Some of us tend to think of "the daily grind" as our cushy fluorescently-lit nine-to-five jobs; but for Claireece "Precious" Jones, the daily grind is getting out of bed in the morning and finding a way to live through another day. Overweight, illiterate, and only 16 years old, Precious has been raped by her father - the result of which is her child with Down's Syndrome (dubbed "Mongro" by her loving grandmother) and another child that is on his or her way - and lives in a hole-in-the-wall apartment in Harlem with her mother who is a lazy, selfish, and angry human being who watches TV all day and lives completely on Welfare and Precious' servitude. Coping with such a life is not easy and she often lashes out in the same anger that she has only known - but Precious does what she can to get by, loving her children the best that she can and taking solace in her fantasies. The pregnancy ultimately gets Precious suspended from high school but her principal suggests enrolling in an alternative school, one that gives Precious a brand new perspective and new source for strength in her gloomy and tumultuous life.

The 2009 drama Precious: Based On The Novel Push By Sapphire is jaw-dropping, soul-crushing, tear-jerking, and multi-award-winning for a reason. It would be easier to count the things that the film does not address, as the African American community, the Welfare system, incest, poverty, illiteracy, abuse, racism, education, AIDS, homosexuality, and everything but the kitchen sink are covered. The film's message on all those things would make the film preachy if Claireece "Precious" Jones character was not the likable character that she is (thanks to a great screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher and an amazing performance by Hollywood newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) with each viewer getting incredibly invested in her and her tough life.

However, I must say that I felt that the film is almost too sad to enjoy. There is no way that I would want to put myself through such a heart-and-soul wrenching film one more time! Undoubtedly, the film's intent is to tell a very sad story in a way that invokes very strong emotions from the audience, but I wonder if too many steps were taken to insure the existence of these strong emotions. I am not about to cry "audience manipulation" here but I might talk about some sort of emotional overdose in the film.

The performances are really where it is at for me. If you are like me and really like to see actors perform outside their comfort levels or break their typecasting molds, then you are going to love the acting in this film. Precious features flat-out good supporting roles from character actors in Paula Patton as Precious' teacher Ms. Rain and a handful of actors who portray Precious' schoolmates but it also features excellent performances from musicians Mariah Carey, as social worker Mrs. Weiss, and Lenny Kravitz, as Precious' friend and one-time caretaker Nurse John.

However, one does not have to look beyond the film's two main characters if they really want to see actors go beyond themselves or their traditional Hollywood personas with great acting performances. It seems as if every award-giving body is giving loud and obnoxious comedian Mo'Nique an award for her shocking portrayal of Precious' mother Mary. Mo'Nique is flawless in her role as the monstrous Mary - one really has to see it to really understand it. However, as much press coverage and awards that Mo'Nique is getting for her performance in the film, it is Gabourey Sidibe who impressed me the most. Check out a clip from the film and then check out one of Gabourey's interviews on the internet: although Gabourey Sidibe looks the part, she is nothing like Precious. In true chameleon fashion, the bubbly Sidibe literally transforms her speech, her presence, her expression - herself - into the role of Claireece "Precious" Jones.

Lee Daniels directs Precious with mixed results. One should easily credit Daniels for not failing the great screenplay and coaxing his actors to fine performances but not for a fine visual product. While Daniels does use a lot of great subtlety and symbolism, his direction is often messy. Sometimes the film looks like an art/indie film but then other times Daniels will throw in a pseudo-documentary technique in there and then other times his framing and pacing makes the film look sloppy when the caliber of the screenplay and cast are anything but. While there are many great elements to Precious, I cannot list Lee Daniels' direction as one of them.

I do not know if I can come to a solid conclusion about what I think about Precious - and I wonder if anyone really can; if that is the point. The best I can do is say that I think that the film has fantastic acting and great emotion but it is not perfection or really all that likable. It's true: I probably will never see Precious ever again - but I will never forget it.

CBC Rating: 7/10

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