Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Love: Precious

Precious may be nearly a couple months old now, but i just got around to willing myself to watch it. The story, at this point, should be nothing new. Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) has got it tough. She's 16, illiterate, overweight, and carrying a child (her second) fathered by her own abusive father (who is nowhere to be seen). At home, she's kicked around and dragged under by a repugnant mother (Mo'Nique) who dispenses a daily dose of hatred and perverted jealousy from her armchair. At school, Precious is a laughingstock, several grades behind and towering over her middle school classmates. When she's booted from the public system, she finds a sliver of hope at a scuzzy looking alternative school. Yet, while the film is bearable in part because of the small amount of optimism Precious manages to maintain, it is no easy pill to swallow. First-time actress Sidibe carries her role well, becoming a character so complete and empathetic it's tough to picture her in any other context. Meanwhile, director Lee Daniels has structured the film into sharply cut episodes and fantasies, so that the viewer is allowed to see the heartbreak in full without the Hollywood happy ending. Precious's life is a grotesque rotating carnival of horror and pain. In many ways, it frequently feels like a pornographic display of cruelty, unflinching, unforgiving, and serving up the most unimaginable of human tragedies for a crowd hungry for suffering. Yet, Precious is ultimately compelling and held up by strong performances and gritty imagery. Sidibe and Daniels use the momentum of a relentless downward spiral and twist it upward, so that we see every small joy in Precious's life as a sort of triumph in which she is the bravest of heroes.
The film does remarkable things with its odd cast of near cameos and first-timers. Mo'Nique, Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz and Sherri Shepherd are all almost completely unrecognizable in their roles, and no matter how small, they maximize their time on screen. Paula Patton, as a sort of prototypical, optimistic inner city teacher, does strong work as well. All of the actors, in dangerously cliche bits as deadbeat parents, welfare agents, nurses, and educators are saved by a script that avoids the preachy and the saccharine. This is not a feel good movie. It's not a sanitized film version of some little moral dilemma Oprah viewers will feel comfortable with. It's provocative, dirty, gritty, and rolling in the depths of something really very uncomfortable and frankly, dangerous. The unmentioned is always present, the casual viewer is never given an easy way out. Indeed, Precious is a film that can't really be faulted for any of its individual pieces. The acting, story, and presentation are all deserving of the acclaim they have thus received and (alongside the heaping dose of politics it delivers) will certainly receive the recognition it plays towards at this year's Academy Awards. Yet, though the film may prove unforgettable, in reality it's not particularly remarkable in terms of originality or film making. My final thought on Precious, then, is that while i managed to enjoy it more than anticipated, i couldn't escape the thought that i was watching something i would later grow annoyed with and that there was something in the relentless horrorshow that didn't quite sit right. I would hope that its simple human dramas don't overshadow the other soaring works of cinema that deserve recognition as works of art in this year's awards season. Gabourey Sidibe may illicit empathy with her character, by Charlotte Gainsbourg's performance in Antichrist still took me to the deepest depths of human despair. So, take Precious. See it. Learn from it. Appreciate it. It's a vivid, well-executed work and variations of its story surround us every day. But remember: it's not the only film out there, and its tragedy is not a substitute for ingenuity.

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