REVIEW: Precious

110 minutes // USA // Lee Daniels Entertainment
dir. Lee Daniels
Friday, November 27th, 2009
starring: Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique & Paula Patton

A concept, a pen and paper – these are the only things you need in order to write a great screenplay. In Geoffrey Fletcher’s case, the concept comes from an allegedly riveting novel that chronicles the trials and tribulations of a young black woman – more like girl as she’s only 16 – who holds onto unrealistic dreams and attempts to persevere regardless of the destructive and unflattering environment she lives in.

In juxtaposition, apparently all you need to deconstruct a great screenplay is Lee Daniels, who – unintentionally, but maliciously – picks apart the well-crafted, well-intentioned script to suit his ostentation, leaving the once proud foundations to sit stagnantly in ruin as he parades in his own excess; leading this viewer to believe that it should have been the inexperienced, but meticulous cast guiding Daniels’ direction as opposed to his shaky ones guiding their performances, in one of the few examples were you feel that it was the actors’ striving for perfection that prompted the performed greatness instead of a prudent director pushing rookie actors to that level of potency.

I’m sure anyone reading this knows the plot by now, so I’ll skip it and stick solely to expressing my opinion on the film as I so seldom do. In a nutshell, the story is about Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) living in a world that is being suffocated by her mother, Mary (Mo’Nique) while trying to break free from the clutches of sheer oppression and make something of herself. Her otherwise damper outlook on the world is brightened when she transfers to an alternative school (much to the chagrin of Mary), meets a few nice people – including an emotionally nourishing teacher named Ms. Rain (Paula Patton) – and with this, is given a second wind in the marathon of life that is finding your purpose. However, it is the depraved execution of this formula for fairy tale that makes the film worth viewing, even if the direction cohorts with the story like a brazen bully with children at a playground.

If you’ve not discovered my issue with the film by now, it is that the direction is the prime source of the film’s detriment. Lee Daniels has a remarkable ability to take a startling scene in concept and massacring it by manipulating the scene with a myriad of editing tricks. Take for example the scene in which Precious and Mary succumb to a fist-fight. The thought that a mother could unrelentingly beat her child after she’s given birth (to her second child, mind you) is disheartening to the core… until Daniels comes in and shops up the scene with a sporadic “stop ‘n go” ‘technique’ (I use the term lightly because he lacks dexterity) where the frame present freezes and the sounds continue until he decides to press play on the reel once again for a few moments and pressing pause again on a loop until the scene has met its climax. A climax, mind you, that remains untouched due to the lack of display in the scene. A pinnacle scene that the feature has to offer tarnished thanks to inexperienced hands.

Atop the permeating visual nuisance is even more nonsensical work by Daniels. Fantasy sequences play a key role in understanding Precious, so while these scenes hold significance (the first two times at least) they become repetitive and dire. If, in a film, a character is only beginning to experience anguish, this formula would be deemed appropriate. However, because it’s apparent Precious has been facing such affliction her entire life, it isn’t the way the fantasies get progressively exaggerated that grabs the viewer’s attention, but rather how Daniels makes this growing agony appear to be abnormal for the titular character. In addition (also a misfire within the script, so not entirely Daniels’ fault) one of the scenes where Precious diverts her misery through fantasy does the completely opposite in an attempt to make its audience chuckle. Early on her mother forces her to eat deep fried pigs feet even though she isn’t hungry. Her mother has a film by Vittorio de Sica on (“coincidentally” it’s a film about rape) with English subtitles and the way Precious “escapes” from this torment is by putting herself and her mother in the film and have her insult and degrade her by forcing her to eat the pigs feet. It’s pulled off in a way that exaggerates the Italian accent and facial expressions to make audiences laugh… but why? What is there to laugh at? Precious isn’t using it to escape reality or degrade her mother. It’s a cynical scene done to get laughs that had me thinking “What’s the purpose?”.

Apart from Lee Daniels, the film is actually quite good. The script by Geoffrey Fletcher does well to give anyone watching it decent insight into Precious’ frame of mind. You see her grow from scene to scene and if not for skipping over some classroom scenes (that would’ve helped secure the mental growth she showed in between ‘growing’ and ‘fully competent’) Fletcher’s work in molding Precious into a living, breathing person would’ve been just about perfect. With this, he also has a refined knack for contrast where the director does not. He piles slimy scene atop slimy scene with little room for hope – but continues to breath it (hope) into Precious to give the viewer something to root for – so that when Precious has a real moment of euphoria, the viewer feels it too. Or at least as well as they can with Daniels’ blanket covering these good intentions.

With a great script at hand and capable skills, the ensemble find their way through the mess of production and into an admirable light. Sidibe authorizes one of the most sincere performances of the year; Mo’Nique unleashes the beast within, dismantling the frothy reputation of a comedienne that preceded her; Patton gives a darling performance as the ray of hope that Sidibe confides in, even if the role is unexamined for the most part. Then there are little performances – like Chyna Layne sporting a thick Jamaican accent while presenting the strength she was given growing up or Lenny Kravitz in a surprisingly subdued portrayal as the kindest nurse you’ll ever see – that demonstrate that raw talent this generation has to offer.

All in all, Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire is hardly a bad film. Fletcher’s script maintains thoughtful continuity and the ensemble has a vast ability to encapsulate what living in a ghetto can do to you in a variety of ways. This is only obstructed by Lee Daniels, a director whose penchant for being garish is only matched by having such a word so perfectly define his style. If the script placed in the hands of someone with less contempt for producing decent cinema, this film would have been as good as its reception is approving.

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