Tonight’s gala screening of “Precious: Based On The Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” as part of the AFI Fest was a major Hollywood event, marked by some of the worst traffic I’ve ever seen in that neighborhood (and I lived in that neighborhood for over a decade) as well as a serious display of star power and class in giving a much-loved festival favorite its victory lap. After Friday, the public gets a say in whether or not “Precious” is a hit, well before awards season gets warmed up, and I suspect the film’s going to get a fairly hefty launch.
Lee Daniels is Having The Moment this week. No question. This is where all the energy, all the attention, all the expectation is being focused right this moment. And there’s something sort of wickedly ironic about sitting at a gala event thrown for a film by Lee Daniels, because I think I’ve figured out his overriding interest as a filmmaker, as a director and a producer and a collaborative partner. He’s got a signature, an aesthetic tell, and I think it’s really come into focus in this movie.
He’s only directed once before, the truly terrible “Shadowboxer” in 2005. An assassin is diagnosed with cancer and takes on one last job. Already, that’s a rough one to pull off, tired. But then it’s stunt cast with Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr. and Stephen Dorff and Mo’Nique (playing, oddly, a character named Precious) and Macy Gray and Joey Gordon-Levitt, and of course that’s how you fund a film like that. You just keep adding bankable elements until they all add enough demographic bang for the buck.
Yet even though I really completely dislike “Shadowboxer,” I can recognize that Daniels does have certain things going on in that film that are at play again in “Precious.” He does, like I said, this one thing in each movie, even as a producer, that makes his work stand out: he deglams everything and everyone.
Lee Daniels loves to shoot the world in no-make-up-graphic-close-up, and he loves to shoot it like the horror film it is.
If you’re going to work for him, and you’re a movie star, prepare to spend a whole lot of time in the makeup trailer so you look like you’ve never had any make-up on your face at all. And prepare to be asked to play everything raw. Halle Berry won her Oscar for “Monster’s Ball,” which Daniels produced, and that whole performance was about tearing down any image of her as glamorous. And in “The Woodsman,” Kevin Bacon plays the ultimate in burn-down-your-image roles, a pedophile. One of the things I disliked about “Shadowboxer” was how much it ladled on the ugly for what seemed to be very little thematic purpose.
The reason “Precious” feels like a crystallization of what Daniels does is because it is absolutely a story where ugly is central to the theme and the texture. The world is an ugly place for Clareece Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), thanks in large part to her mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), who has created a sort of slow-motion Hell for her daughter over the course of her first sixteen years of life. Geoffrey Fletcher’s screenplay, working from the novel by Sapphire, is actually fairly reserved, an austere emotional ride punctuated by spikes of character humor and sudden shrieking terror. It is not a dramatic experience so much as it is meant to be an almost pure point-of-view experience.
We’re not watching a traditional uplifting feel-good underdog movie about a girl learning to define herself after years of being defined by a horrible bully, an abusive monster, but instead, we are asked to live through it as that girl, and without all the typical buffers that melodrama put in place. When people respond to “Precious,” what they are responding to is that virtual reality, that experiential quality that makes the film feel like a fairly literary exercise in memory and voice. As a director, I still think Daniels has tendencies that undermine his own best ideas, some excess and a sort of insecure hyperactivity of the camera at times. He’s also got an odd sense of pace and the film never really settles into a rhythm as characters come and go, but because it’s a memory piece, that’s not as much of a problem as it would be with a more aggressively narrative-based film.
Think about how easy it would be to make an afterschool-special version of the story of a hugely obese 16 year old girl who is pregnant for the second time by her own father, who lives with her mother who is angry and physically abusive, and who finds herself bounced out of high school and sent to an alternative learning program because she can’t read or write, only to find a teacher whose interest in her helps turn her life around. That’s the film, and there’s very little you’ll get from the film that’s more elaborate than that in terms of plot.
Sidibe’s work as Precious is essential to the film’s success, and she does indeed bring the character to real and affecting life. You can’t help but feel the sting of every single thing that’s stacked up against this girl as she moves through each day. Daniels does his best to make her coping mechanisms feel real to us, bursts of fantasy at important moments, each one designed to take her out of some situation too horrible to face, some moment that’s just too real for her to process. When your own mother throws something at your head hard enough to knock you out cold, or when she decides to beat you with a closed fist, in the face, in the stomach where you’re carrying a child, then escape is not just understandable, it’s essential. What I find most damning about the fantasies we see from her is that they’re empty. She’s famous in all of them, but she never really seems to be doing anything. She’s just famous. That’s the perfect example of how empty the dream that most Americans are sold really is. Precious never dares to dream about real escape, about bettering herself, taking control of her life, her weight, her body, her future. Those dreams are the ones that Mary beats out of her. Those dreams are the ones that hurt too much for Precious to allow them. They’re the ones that make her angry when they’re brought up by people like her school principal (Nealla Gordon) or her social worker (Mariah Carey) or her literacy teacher (Paula Patton), because those are the dreams that take real work, that take real strength.
Now, here’s the problem: “Precious” feels like exactly what it is: a very small-scale, personal film. And yet, thanks to its Sundance wins and the endorsements of Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, and thanks to a year’s worth of reviews as it also played Cannes and Toronto, finally wrapping it up with this last festival appearance before Lionsgate brings it to theaters on November 6th. By now, there’s no way to describe the flood of coverage and awareness and buzz except “hype.” By now, “Precious” is the most hyped Sundance movie of the year, the one that’s been annointed pre-release as a must-see can’t-miss Oscar-sure-thing powerhouse. And as always happens, there is a chance that this film has been wildly overhyped, and that audiences will respond after they finally get a chance to see it with a massive shrug.
I think the film is absolutely worth seeing. I don’t think it’s a film you will enjoy, but I don’t think it was made to be enjoyed. I think it is unsettling and difficult and played without compromise, and if I were the sort of writer who spent time closely analyzing awards season, I would absolutely have “Precious” in the mix in numerous categories this year. As a parent, I found a good deal of the film difficult to sit through, and I reacted vocally to a few moments. I find that I can’t read news stories about cruelty to children, particularly very young children, because I project and almost reflexively imagine someone doing that to my own children. I am scared by the anger I feel at the prospect of anyone hurting my kids, and that’s why it is such an alien idea to think about kids who are hurt by the very people who are supposed to love and protect and nurture them. The greatest thing I can say about Mo’Nique’s much lauded performance, aside from agreeing with every good thing that’s been said or written about her so far, is that she makes me understand the “why” more than I ever have, even if I’ll never understand how these people put thought to action in these cases.
There are times where I just sit with my kids and look into their eyes, amazed to see the light in there, the potential, these souls who I have taken on as a responsibility for the rest of my life, and I am filled with such joy, such pride that I am fortunate enough to have this family, these people I share my life with. And watching “Precious” only reinforces to me how important that responsibility is, and how much I hope I live up to it. Lee Daniels has made a movie that offers up the absolute worst in an effort to illuminate the need for the absolute best, and even if I don’t love every single thing about it, I think it’s a film of genuine substance, one you should see for yourself.
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