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March 3, 2010 | by  | in Film |
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Precious Film Review Showdown: Adam Goodall vs. Judah Finnegan

Film
Fight!

Adam Goodall:

Precious’ synopsis is one that appears, on the face of it, to have been ripped straight from a book of hot-potato issues. Precious is a black, obese teenage girl growing up in 1980s Harlem, pregnant with her second child to her abusive father. Her first child has Downs Syndrome and her mother, Mary, is a hateful, lazy, benefit-scrounging woman. Precious is forced out of public school because of she’s pregnant and enrols in an alternative school where she finds self-realisation in journal-writing under the tutelage of a lesbian teacher.

It’s a veritable grab-bag of important social issues, and director Lee Daniels deals with them in a manner that can best be described as misjudged. He alternates between gritty, kitchen-sink direction and hyperstylised presentation with the grace of a decapitated chicken, severely nullifying the film’s potential impact. When Precious is raped by her father, Daniels plays it in slow motion, as if we are meant to marvel at the rape rather than be repulsed by it.

An initially disturbing scene in which Mary forces Precious to eat a meal because she doesn’t want it is deflated by a hilarious cut-away to a Whose Line is it Anyway-esque replay of the scene in Italian neo-realist style. At one point, Precious steals a bucket of fried chicken for breakfast, and it plays so easily into the hands of racist stereotypes of black people as to be absurd and bizarre. Daniels builds up the ugliness and drama of Precious’ Harlem, and then dashes it all with redundant fantasy sequences and horrible creative missteps.

This problematic approach to what should be a hard-hitting and confrontational film is compounded by Geoffrey Fletcher’s galling script. Fletcher’s script unsubtly deifies Blue Rain, the character based on the author of the novel the film is based on. Fletcher also plays unwittingly into the hands of racist stereotypes time and again, be it in the theft of the fried chicken or in the grotesque realisation of Reagan-era generalisations of lower-class black America that is Mary (brought to life by Mo’Nique, whose performance is all sound and fury, signifying nothing). Gabourey Sidibe is solid as the titular Precious, with ever-visible reservoirs of sadness and anger behind her dark eyes, and Paula Patton makes the angelic Blue Rain human enough to be believable, but even they aren’t enough to save the film.

Precious is a film so obsessed with being important and with tackling the ‘tough issues’ that it feels self-important, and, like people, self-important films are interminably boring. Just because your film tackles important social issues doesn’t make the film itself important—a lesson Daniels and Fletcher really should have learned before embarking on this film.

Judah Finnegan:

On paper, the cast of Precious doesn’t exactly scream Oscars. Judging from the names of newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, stand up comic Mo’Nique, Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey, it doesn’t seem apparent that this cast could carry a story of this weight on their shoulders. The good news is that they most certainly can; not only carrying the film, but lifting it high above all cynicism.

Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire details the life of 16-year-old Clareece ‘Precious’ Jones (Gabourey Sidibe). Precious lives in inner city Harlem with her abusive mother (Mo’Nique). She is obese and pregnant with her second child, both of which were given to from her father. Harassed by her classmates and battered by her mother, Precious fantasises of a life of flashing cameras, glamorous clothes and a light-skinned boyfriend. It is only as she begins to study at an alternative school with a supportive new teacher (Paula Patton) that she learns of escape, and ultimately, redemption.

If the story sounds grim and bleak, that’s because it is. This is bold filmmaking, with director Lee Daniels hitting us hard and heavy. At times, it’s difficult viewing. Yet his brilliance is in how he manages to preserve this underlying spirit of hope beneath the grit; a warmth laced with tinges of unexpected humour. And while the film suffers a little from moments of confusion in tone and misplaced (and sometimes amateurish) techniques, Daniels is well aware that the power of the film lies with the story and its performers.

And what performers they are. The acting is nothing short of exceptional. Paula Patton confirms why she should be a bigger star, exuding beauty and a gentle radiance into her character that shines without feeling contrived. You’ll believe every word she says. Mariah Carey is brilliantly cast against type as a no-nonsense social worker, and Lenny Kravitz proves great support as a gentle male nurse. Mo’Nique should be damn near certain of securing an Oscar this year. Her performance as Precious’ abusive mother will shatter all prior preconceptions to her as an actress and then some. She is revelatory, somehow managing to balance the horrific brutality of an abusive parent with the pain of a broken victim. Wait for the final scene in the welfare office as she gives the background to her hideous violence. It’s devastating.

But it’s Gabourey Sidibe who owns the film. Watching Precious grow is a painful yet enriching journey, and Sidibe captures every heartbreaking step with courage and poignancy. Her performance is breathtaking and brave and I sincerely hope she is honoured come Oscar time.

Precious is far from perfect but its strength lies in its heart; big, broken and full of pain, yet alive with hope. It glows with an authenticity that transcends the formula of the ‘inner city youth and inspirational teacher’ drama and fleshes out into something far more bruising and far more real.

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  1. How do you like them apples? says:

    So it’s Finding Forrester without Connery’s dulcet tones? And someone who desperately needs to put down the fork and find a better expression for their energies?

    Well fuck it. It would nicely round out a completely shit house lineup of Oscar nominations this year.

    Hurray for hamfisted heart-string tugging.

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