Precious: A Stunning Portrait of Dreams and Despair
Between the undeniably powerful emotions and the heart-wrenching acting, it’s understandable why everyone glosses over some of the awkward transitions or strange moments in Lee Daniels’ Precious. It’s also understandable why many are calling Lee Daniels a genius, since he throws several stylistic flairs into the film that a safer director wouldn’t do, and even though some of them don’t gel, some work to outstanding effect. I can even understand why some people don’t want to see this movie– it’s unrelenting truthful, which can be hard for some to face. What I can’t understand is how Mo’Nique hid all that acting talent underneath her comedienne exterior. It’s a performance that’s a lock for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, full of the big emotional scenes and brave acting that the Academy loves to reward. Precious as a film is a bit like its main character: it might not be perfect, but it has a beautiful soul.
To give you a small example of what Precious (Gabourney Sibide) goes through– She is overweight. She is poor. She can’t read or write. She is pregnant for the second time by the age of 16. The children are her father’s. Her first child has some sort of mental handicap. Her mother abuses her, mentally, physically, and sexually. The pressure to drop out of school and get on welfare is almost overwhelming. Any one of these problems alone could have made up a powerful film.These are all given to one character within the first five minutes of the film– it’s the reality of her situation. Yet Precious still dreams of a better life, where she’s a movie star with fancy dresses and a light-skinned boyfriend.
It’s a heavy film, there’s no question. Issues like racism, homosexuality, incest, abuse, and AIDS are openly discussed in a way that avoids preachiness. Lee Daniels captures the gritty realities of Precious’ home life and school life in a way that nearly all glossy Hollywood films would find too frank and shocking. He also employs a number of fantasy sequences where Precious dreams of a better life. Many of these didn’t work for me, but the ones that did (in particular, a montage of photos of happier times between Precious and her mother interlaced with the most violent and terrifying fight of the film) bordered on brilliant.
The standout moment that takes the film from a well-acted issue film into the realm of the terrific is the final scene, where Mo’Nique delivers a frank monologue about how she let the rapes occur, and how the sexual abuse began in her family. It’s a horrifying heartbreaking monologue, where we see a person who used to have a soul rather than a mere monster. I spoke with a friend yesterday about damaging stereotypes in film– trailer trash white folks, minority gangsters who swear and wear baggy jeans, welfare-leeching fat black women, and the like. In certain films, these images do nothing but offend. They do not inform, they progress the plot sloppily, and they serve as cartoons in a film where dimension is necessary (see two Clint Eastwood examples, Million Dollar Baby and Gran Torino). However, when the performer is a smart capable actor, they suggest the underlying reasons why they ended up this way, and instead of thinking depictions such as this in film are offensive, they instead reflect a gritty reality where people end up the way that they are for a reason, and they have opinions on how they behave, and they have motivations other than merely advancing the plot. Mo’Nique’s performance in Precious, particularly in that last monologue, is something I never saw coming– a brilliant bit of non-stereotypical acting from a comedienne who finds the humor in stereotypes. This film is like a boxer: it jabs you hard with quick hits, then lulls for a bit until it’s ready to barrage you again, and at the end, it unquestionably delivers a knockout. While you might have seen more masterfully executed films this past year, it’s hard to imagine there was a better constructed emotional battlefield, a grim truth that is far too prevalent in society yet is rarely represented on screen… until now.