November 08, 2009

MOVIES: Precious (Lee Daniels, 2009)

Claireece Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is 16 years old. She's obese, illiterate (though she's managed to hide that well enough to get to the 8th grade), and she is currently, for the second time, pregnant with her father's child. She lives in a small Harlem apartment with her mother, Mary (Mo'Nique), a physically and emotionally abusive woman. Precious, which is based on a novel by Sapphire, gives us one year in her life.

Let's start with the good news. The two principal performances are very good. Precious wears a near-permanent scowl of fear and anger, but it is remarkable how much emotion Sidibe communicated through that scowl. We see her hope and her optimism, which are somehow even more painful than the horrible circumstances of her life, because we know how unlikely it is that they will ever be rewarded.

Mo'Nique is given a very limited character to play. Mary is, quite simply, a monster. That's all she is; there are no redeeming qualities, no warmth, no flashes of the decent human being she might once have been. She gets a big speech late in the movie which is, I think, meant to provide her with some shred of humanity -- she talks about realizing that her boyfriend was sexually abusing their daughter -- but her response to that realization is so ghastly, so inhuman, that it only makes her seem more beastly. But Mo'Nique is utterly committed to the character, and goes to all of the horribly dark places the role demands without a shred of vanity; it's a ferocious performance, and a shock from an actress who's been best known for moderately competent sitcom work.

But the problem with the movie is that it is unrelentingly bleak. There's not a shred of humor in it, and while we can admire the hope and resilience with which Precious faces life, it seems so unlikely that she's ever going to have any of the joy she hopes for, or ever escape from this miserable life of poverty, that it almost feels cruel to watch her cling to such false hope. And any time some slim shred of genuine hope does come along, it is inevitably stomped to death by some new horrific event or revelation.

By the end of the movie, not much has changed for Precious. She's another year older; she's now got two children to take care of; she's gotten some distance from her mother; and there have been other developments -- most of them for the worse -- that I shouldn't give away. So the movie becomes not much more than 90 minutes of wallowing in misery. There's no relief, there's no hope, there's no escape, there's only pain.

And wallow is precisely what director Lee Daniels does. It's not enough to show us Precious being raped by her father; he has to intercut that with scenes of pig's feet cooking on the stove, in case we don't get "he treats her like meat" connection. It's not enough for Mary to be a cruel and abusive mother; she has to actually try to kill her daughter and newborn grandson. The suffering is piled so deep that it starts to become a sadistic cartoon. By the time it's over, I felt like I'd been beaten up.

Are two brilliant performances enough to overcome the movie's manipulative cruelty? Not for me. I'm glad to have seen those performances, and I'm very eager to see what's next for Sidibe, but as good as she and Mo'Nique are, I can't recommend the movie.

No comments: