Harshing on Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (Lionsgate Films), the awkwardly titled Lee Daniels adaptation of an “urban fiction” best-seller, makes a critic feel almost as mean-spirited as Mary, the monstrously abusive mother of the film’s eponymous heroine. Parked in front of the TV in the grim Harlem walk-up they share, Mary (played with a fearsome lack of vanity by stand-up comedian Mo’Nique) pelts her 16-year-old daughter, Claireece Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), with cruel insults, imperious commands, and, whenever possible, heavy airborne objects. “I ain’t done nothin’!” Precious protests, and the movie is at pains to prove her right: For the first hour at least, Precious is less a person who does things than an object to which things are done. Her absentee father, seen only once in a nauseating flashback sequence, rapes her on a regular basis; at 16, she’s pregnant with his second child. Her daughter, who has Down syndrome, lives with a coldly disapproving grandmother; their visits last just long enough to fool the welfare inspector into issuing Mary’s next check. In addition to being obese, unloved, and dirt-poor, Precious is also illiterate, though the public school she attends is so bad that she’s managed to camouflage that fact through the eighth grade. In short, this girl’s life is so abysmal that you feel the least you can do is like the movie she’s in.
It’s not that there isn’t anything to like about Precious, which at its best resembles its heroine: observant, large-spirited, and brave. The director, Lee Daniels ( Shadowboxer), puts on his hip boots and wades into grimmer territory than any recent film I can think of, and his fearless leading ladies, Mo’Nique and Sidibe, wade right in with him. But Daniels’ methodical commitment to abjection, his need to shove the reality of Precious’ life in our faces and wave it around till we acknowledge its awfulness, winds up robbing the audience (and, to some extent, the actors) of all agency. Daniels is not above cutting from an image of incestuous rape to a shot of greasy pork sizzling on the stove: Her father treats her like meat, get it? In its eagerness to drag us through the lower depths of human experience, Precious leaves no space for the audience to breathe or to draw our own conclusions. For a film about empowerment and self-actualization, it wields an awfully large cudgel.
Precious is expelled from school when the news of her second pregnancy comes out, but the principal refers her to an alternative learning center, Each One Teach One, where an impossibly beautiful and patient teacher named Blu Rain (Paula Patton) leads a reading and writing workshop for dropout girls. Ms. Rain is an emissary from another world, where slender, caring, soft-spoken women (Ms. Rain, as it turns out, is a lesbian) sip wine and play Scrabble and, in Precious’ words, “talk like TV channels I don’t watch.” Precious’ ability to read and write keeps pace with her growing belly as she slowly learns to trust Ms. Rain and her raucous, foulmouthed, but closeknit classmates. (All the Each One Teach One girls are deftly sketched and well-cast, as is an exasperated social worker played with surprising finesse by Mariah Carey.) But when Precious’ baby finally arrives, she’s forced to depend once more on her toxic disaster of a mother. As Precious carries the fragile newborn into that awful apartment, you want to rush the screen and lock her out to keep them safe, and the scene that follows shamelessly exploits that protective impulse. I don’t like when children are used as decoys to lure a movie audience into a trap.
Seeded throughout Precious are brief dream sequences in which the stolidly joyless heroine imagines herself as a performer in a music video, a movie star on the red carpet, etc. Whether these are meant to be critiques of a mass culture that trades in escapist fantasy or simply pathos-ridden glimpses into Precious’ impoverished mental life is never clear. But like the outlandish badness of the mother character, the overdetermined tawdriness of these scenes does the movie and its heroine a disservice. Daniels and his screenwriter, Geoffrey Fletcher, are so eager to wring uplift from Precious’ story that they’re willing to manipulate us to get it. Daniels and Fletcher no doubt intended for their film to lend a voice to the kind of protagonist too often excluded from American movie screens: a poor, black, overweight single mother from the inner city. But in offering up their heroine’s misery for the audience’s delectation, they’ve created something uncomfortably close to poverty porn.
Slate V: The critics on Precious and other new releases