I'm disappointed to say that I didn't love Precious. Hype runs rampant in Hollywood, but every once in a while lightening is truly captured in a motion picture camera, and it is magic to behold. Precious is not magic -- not even morose, downbeat magic. It is a tougher, more realistic version of a Tyler Perry soap opera, with the additional invaluable advantage that it was made by people who know how to make movies. Perhaps the Perry reference is a bit harsh for a movie that is thoroughly solid with flashes of greatness...but as a whole, the film flirts with danger but plays it way too safe.
Not that it doesn't get down and dirty, mind you. The story stays true to its source material, the much more interestingly titled novel Push, by Sapphire, who reportedly refused movie offer after movie offer, and likely should have kept refusing if she wanted to maintain the power of her work. Business-wise, finally allowing her book to be adapted for the screen was surely a stroke of genius -- the film will rake in around $50 million and be nominated for countless Oscars -- but the emotional flavor the content is only grazed upon. I have only read a few brief snippets of Push, but it reads like the best sections of Precious played out for an entire piece. It is great African American fiction, reminiscent of Alice Walker and Richard Wright, and its cinematic spawn can only muster the same power in fits and starts.
Amazing newcomer Gabourney Sidibe plays the title character, Clarice "Precious" Jones, who can barely read or write, is pregnant with her second child (a result of frequent, brutal incestuous molestation), and who glides through bogus inner city schools because the schools themselves are too poor and neglected to succeed. Precious is incessantly abused -- physically, emotionally, and psychologically -- by her monstrous mother (Mo'Nique), who resides in her own private hell resulting from a lifetime of her own abuse. After years of oppression and abuse, Precious is offered a chance to enroll in an "alternative school" for troubled inner city youth, and it is there she begins a journey to improve her life for her kids and for herself.
The story is poignant, acted with ferocious passion, and rendered with a considerable amount of visual flair by director Lee Daniels (his only previous film: the universally-hated 2006 mind-boggler Shadowboxer). But Daniels' style is at times a little too ostentatious for the material, which begs to be played with utmost reality, not with smooth camera motions and over-the-top slow-motion sequences intended to underscore the pain of specific moments...as if the moments themselves don't earn the painful reactions. Daniels and writer Geoffrey Fletcher seem to waver in their trust of the material and occasionally feel the need to milk the audience's emotional reaction -- too bad, since Sapphire's source material is potent, and the film's cast is extraordinary from top to bottom.
Mo'Nique's performance has been the talk of Hollywood in the past several weeks, and her work is truly shocking, reaching notes of striking vitriol and utter despair. Her performance will likely win the supporting actress Oscar, which is a great story, though her "all about the Benjamins" purposeful deflection of praise makes it hard to root for her. Much easier is rooting for Sidibe, who literally came out of nowhere to give what is, in all honesty, the film's best performance. The actress' charming, giddy presence on talk shows is a true testament to the seriousness of her work here. There is not a hint of artifice in her portrayal; for the duration of the film, she becomes this tragic protagonist.
As for the film's Oscar chances, they remain strong. Hard to tell yet if the film has peeked early, ala-Brokeback Mountain, but at this point it seems maybe it has. Nonetheless, in a field of ten, the movie sits comfortably in the top 3 or 4 in its chances of winning. Sure to be nominated, with a decent shot at winning. It will depend on the forthcoming campaign.
As for the final analysis of the film, Precious is a strong and important film. Perfect, no. Groundbreaking, no. World-changing, no. And that's unfortunate, given what the filmmakers had to work with.