Movie Review – Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire (2009)
by HELEN GEIB
Precious (full title: the exceedingly unwieldy Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire) is one of the minor movie sensations of 2009. Produced on a lean $10 million budget, it has already grossed more than $45 million, making it a rare indie success story and earning profits that put many of the year’s big Hollywood productions to the blush. The subject matter has attracted praise – sometimes glowing, and criticism – sometimes virulent. It received the establishment seal of approval last week when it was announced the film had been nominated for six Academy Awards: picture, director, actress, supporting actress, editing, and adapted screenplay. All of which is to say that it is no longer possible to separate the film from its critical-commercial-cultural reception.
The basic outline of the story has been widely publicized. The film is set in Harlem in the mid-1980s. The main character is an obese 16 year old black girl (Gabourey Sidibe) who lives with her abusive, welfare-dependent mother (Mo’Nique). She has been sexually abused by her father since childhood and is pregnant with her second child; her first child, also by her father, has Down syndrome. She is illiterate. She fantasizes about having an adoring, light-skinned boyfriend and living a glamorous celebrity lifestyle. On occasion, she looks into the mirror and imagines her reflection is that of a pretty, fashionable white girl.
The girl’s name is Precious, an authorial choice that initially seems to have been made for ironic effect; when the story begins she is precious to no one, including herself. In fact, it is a declaration of principle. The dominant narrative arc is self-empowerment through education. Precious discovers self-worth in learning to read, thus disproving her mother’s cruel words telling her she is stupid and worthless. She is aided in her emotional journey by the attentive kindness of her teacher at the remedial alternative school, the friendship of her urban quilt classmates (her first friends), a dedicated social worker, and the joy and responsibility of caring for her new baby.
The film has been criticized in some quarters as exploitative and demeaning. That criticism finds no support in the filmmaking. The film, guided by Lee Daniels’ direction and Geoffrey Fletcher’s screenplay, is extremely earnest in delivering its message of self-empowerment and hope. Precious’ situation is terrible and exceptional, but tragically, not unrealistic. She is helped by others, but overcomes her past through her own strength of character. The performances, in keeping with the rest of the film, are patently sincere.
On the other hand, the strong praise the film has received in other quarters is out of proportion to the filmmaking. The film is so resolutely earnest in tone that it is monotonous. (When Precious describes her teacher and her lover as talking like people on a TV channel she doesn’t watch, it is the film’s only moment of wit and very nearly its only moment of levity.) A third act revelation that Precious has contracted HIV from her father should be tragic, but instead feels like piling on for tear-jerking effect; as if the filmmakers feared the audience might have become desensitized to her suffering, or were casting about for an excuse for a heavy, cathartic emotional scene. The writing is clunky in its use of voice over narration, frequently falling back on Precious’ internal monologue and, especially awkward, the recitation by her and her teacher of passages from a shared diary (kept by Precious as art therapy). The quality of the performances is variable.
There is an astonishing, astonishingly powerful scene near the end of the film. Daniels’ camera, often hostage to the shaky camcorder aesthetic, is stilled, fixed unwaveringly on Precious’ mother as she delivers a lengthy speech self-justifying her complicity in her daughter’s sexual abuse. The moment is appalling and transfixing; the scene the capstone of Mo’Nique’s remarkable performance. Remarkable and brave. The character she brings to life on the screen is monstrous and horrifyingly real.
Gabourey Sidibe received a best actress Oscar nomination for her performance in Precious. She is up against Sandra Bullock for The Blind Side, another crowd-pleaser about a young person who succeeds against the odds.