The much-hyped little indie which took the festival circuit by storm is not exactly the feel good story big shot executive producers Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey would lead you to believe. It's a grueling, unrelenting cinema experience in which director Lee Daniels, a man who seems to know no restraint, bombards his audience with abuse after abuse against one innocent Harlem teen named Precious Jones. Make a list and check it twice. Incest! Beatings! Chicken theft! Nothing is off limits in this realer than real indie that all but begs you to cry and use the word "empowering" as you exit the theater. The film opens in the midst of violence and despair and very slowly lifts the burden until a pseudo-release arrives, but not with any sense satisfaction. There are no victories, no reliefs. As powerfully real as physical and sexual abuse might be, it's still a question of whether an audience will submit to being force fed shocking visuals without mercy for the full length of a feature film. Be assured, Precious will not be a fun or pleasant experience to view.
The film's central figure, Precious Jones (played with great presence and confidence by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) is an illiterate teen, pregnant with her second child by her sexually abusive father, and living with her physically abusive mother, Mary (Mo'Nique in a role that's unquestionably startling and difficult to watch). She's aided by a new teacher at an alternative school (Paula Patton), the school's secretary (Sherri Shepherd), a generous nurse (Lenny Kravitz), and an invested social worker (Mariah Carey) in establishing new goals and finding her self worth.
The film's greatest virtue truly is its graphic, unflinching nature. The central topic is bold and there are moments in which the film mesmerizes not only with its brutality but with the way it captures the nuances of everyday life, humor and all. It is when it is in its simplest, purest form that the film really works wonders. It's director Lee Daniels' decadence of despair which clouds the moving central narrative with heavy-handed attempts to turn life into art. Consider the ridiculous amount of cheap looking montage that accompanies the very early revelation of Precious' rape by her father. Or the film's most emotionally draining moment: Mary's final assault on her daughter, which is made saccharine by ridiculous cutaways to childhood photos. If only these moments had stood alone the power would be felt more fully. Chopped up with film school instincts, they are significantly less than what they should be.
There's also the ever present issue of integrity vs. capital. At no point did I get the impression this was a film honoring those who have been abused in a similar fashion to Precious. Most times it felt like an ego stroke to fabulously wealthy talent so proud of themselves for flirting with "realness."At what point filming Mo'Nique's unshaven body hair or Mariah Carey's unmade-up face stops being a self-flattering exercise in capturing "real life" and starts becoming a serious film is sometimes hard to decipher. There are miraculous scenes of unflinching truth here made stronger by uniformly exceptional performances (even by Carey, dare we admit to it). There are just a few too many times in which reality (not "reality") shine through and the weirdly mocking sense of "Hey, let's play poor ugly people!" chews up the beauty of the film at hand. You can imagine the endless conversations had about exactly how "real" Carey should look. The kind of cheap clothes they could get her so she could be "real." How do "real" people talk (like Fran Drescher, apparently)? The attempts to strip away all artifice are so pronounced that they becomes equally artificial.
You cannot deny the power of so much of this material. I honestly believe the film works overall and has many great successes. Unfortunately, sometimes the packaging of this project, the tone and style set by director Lee Daniels, takes away from the power of the narrative and the vivid performances at the core of the film. Precious is a good film with a lot to say, but I do not think it is a great one.