Lee Daniels’ Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire sold out its show as the closing-night film at this year’s Asheville Film Festival, so a second show was lined up and that sold out, too. Of course, at that moment, Precious was the hot topic in terms of movies. It had blazed its way through film festivals, garnering awards and praise. It had opened on a handful of screens doing an unheard of average of more than $100,000 per theater its opening weekend. But that was over a month ago, and in today’s media-saturated, instant-gratification world, it will be interesting to see what happens when the film opens locally this Friday. It will be a great pity if this worthy film suffers simply because audiences have been through several “next big thing” movies and moved on.
I’ll also say that, for all its merits, Precious is not, in my view, quite the masterpiece it’s been painted as. It is, however, a very good work and an amazingly brave one—especially when you consider that one of its executive producers is Tyler Perry. While it’s hard to deny that some of the more melodramatic aspects of the film are the hard-R equivalent of things found in Perry’s films, the overall tone of Precious makes it seem like it’s the work of an Anti-Perry. Don’t look to Precious for Perry’s typical cozy bromides and easy answers involving Jesus and finding a good man. In fact, there’s one scene that plays like a bitter parody of the climax of a Perry movie, with Precious (Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe) looking into a church and fantasizing herself to be a member of a gospel choir. She’s standing—holding her illegitimate baby—next to a hunky guy who’s holding a puppy. The scene plays like a Perry parody, because it’s pure fantasy—of the kind Precious might well have gotten from a Perry movie.
Indeed, quite the most remarkable thing about Precious is its almost complete lack of easy sentimentality. It has moments of heartbreaking sadness—mostly involving Precious’ fantasy images of herself as a vaguely defined media star and the startling scene where the obese black teenager looks in the mirror and sees herself as a stylishly thin blonde white girl. But these moments in the film don’t aim for your tear ducts. They speak to a tragedy too deep for tears. The movie knows that those tears might make you feel better, but they are of no use to Precious.
Set in the late 1980s, Precious is a head-on look at the grim life of its titular character: a barely literate, overweight Harlem teenager pregnant with her second child (by her father), tormented and tortured by her nightmarish mother (Mo’Nique) and without a friend in the world. This starts to change when she’s taken out of school and put into a special class with an understanding teacher, Ms. Rain (Paula Patton, Idlewild), who gets Precious to open up through writing a journal. At this point, the film starts to veer into the realm of a “teacher who made a difference” drama—the movie even has a museum field trip that’s only a Lulu song shy of being right out of To Sir, with Love (1967).
However, the film neither presents Ms. Rain as a savior, nor does it depict Ms. Rain as a largely sexless creature whose whole life is teaching. In fact, when Precious has to stay with her for a time, the girl is shocked to find that her teacher has a girlfriend, causing her to remark in a voice-over, “Oh, my God—straight-up lesbians!” The sequence is telling on several levels. It offers insights into how these women’s world has nothing to do with the one Precious knows. “I guess this is how the people on TV feel at Christmastime,” Precious muses at one point, also noting, “They talk like TV channels I don’t watch.” At the same time, it addresses the prejudices her mother has instilled in her (“Mama say homos is bad people”) and how that doesn’t stack up against her own experiences.
This all works—as does most of the material involving Precious’ relationship with a social worker (a glammed-down Mariah Carey)—and the performances tend to get the film over some of its rougher patches, but those patches are there. Yes, Mo’Nique is good as the monster mother—who becomes only more monstrous when she “explains” her actions—but some of this gets close to parody in its sheer villainy. If it weren’t for the understated gravity of Sidibe’s performance, I think it would cross that line. But all in all, this is a strong movie—and one that surprised me because I didn’t think I’d want to see it twice, but I did, and I found it even better the second time. Rated R for child abuse, including sexual assault and pervasive language.