Very sage, Original BJ.
I do not like this movie.
Sometimes a red flag kind of goes up during the course of a film one or two times and it takes a moment to recognize it. Precious bitch slaps you in the face with a red flag so hard ten minutes into the movie. I won't mince words: the minute Precious is first flashbacking to her rape ten minutes into the movie, I looked away. Not because the material was so emotionally painful but because Lee Daniels' choices were so uniformly awful, I couldn't bear it. Sledge Daniels continues to hyperactively direct every scene without really stopping to consider what he is doing. To wit:
Early in the film, Mo'Nique, who is quite good, screams at Sibide, who might be good had she a character to play, for what feels like minutes on end with a stream of evil, evil, EVIL dialogue. She throws something at Precious. Precious kicks it back. She then storms upstairs after Precious...
(FADE TO BLACK:)
Mo'Nique watching I believe a workout video of some sort and limply joining in with just enough skin showing to reveal that she does not shave under her armpits. Lee Daniel is trying to juxtapose the horror of Precious' life with the spectacle of this horrible woman feebly trying to get in shape and her ugly body. The problem is that I cannot begin to laugh after what I have just seen. There are ways of deflating tension with comedy and then there are ways that you fail. Daniels has miscalculated my ability to move beyond the horror of Precious' life. Beyond his visual tactics, he has miscalculated the progression of scenes.
Now, I want to talk about the scene where Precious is raped by her father. Ten minutes into the movie, I believe, she collapses upstairs after cooking for her mother. I don't recall if this is before or after the scene I just mentioned. It all tended to blur together, so forgive me. In slow-motion, she remembers being raped, her father sliding down his pants, putting vaseline on his dick, and penetrating her, as she looks to the ceiling. The ceiling breaks away and she sees herself as a beautiful dancer on BET dancing happily. This is a fantasy within a memory so jarringly edited together that you're almost assaulted with it. Beyond this, Lee Daniels cross-cuts to eggs sizzling in a frying pan. I believe that this sequence is quite possibly the most grotesque piece of filmmaking this year for several reasons. Beyond any choices that Daniels is beyond and the filmic ethics behind them, how does it logistically make sense? If it was happening right then, I could understand cross-cutting from a rape to a fantasy to eggs, but the memory of a fantasy during a rape to eggs?
More than any movie since The Reader, Precious does not pretend to understand how memory works. Memory is sensory. In The Reader, David Kross remembers his tryst while other people are eating from outside his perspective. Lee Daniels' filmmaking is terrible at capturing Precious' perspective. He's very busy trying to be the next Scorsese or Spike that he doesn't ask what the scene requires. A scene where Ms. Rain (Paula Patton, who is painfully bland) is trying to push Precious to read the words "A Day at the Beach" on a picture of roughly the same. He uses a handheld camera to get in close to Ms. Rain's eyes and Precious' eyes before cutting back to static expository shots. Presumably Precious cannot read "Beach" and looks to the picture and assumes that it's a "Shore". So she says "Shore" and Ms. Rain corrects her. But Daniels doesn't show her looking at the picture and assuming that it is a shore. He's too busy showing off with the camera to understand what this scene is about: namely, how the educational process has taught Precious to fake getting by, and how she is being pushed to learn. There are literally countless examples where Daniels misses the mark. Like Finding Neverland pretends to be about imagination, Precious pretends to be about writing and education, but it never goes there. There are a small handful of lovely off-the-cuff seemingly-improvised scenes between Precious and the rest of her class that I enjoyed, but it doesn't change the fact that this is all painfully clichéd stuff. Now, clichés are there because they work. I don't mind cliché if it's in the hands of someone who knows how to make it work. As a director, Lee Daniels is not thinking about what's best for the scene but rather the best way to show off. As a writer, Lee Daniels is not gifted enough to write a satisfying, complete narrative such that the touching story will survive his direction. All we are left with are good intentions.
There is a way to make fantasy sequences mesh with reality, and there is a way to underscore voice-over with reality. Fuck that: there are several ways. Precious is utterly unsuccessful at both. Precious has no character arc. She talks at us but as a person we cannot see her change. Gabourney Sidibe is presumably quite good but the film is so busy using voice-over to explain what she is feeling that we never get a chance to see it. Gabourney Sidibe IS the movie's Precious, in a way: a target of abuse, projected upon more than Balthasar the donkey. Had a white man directed this film, he'd be fucking dead by now. As it is, on Oscar morning it's entirely possible that Precious will be left out in the cold. If so, it's because white voters ejected the movie on the basis of the first ten minutes which consist of an incredibly obese black girl being horrifically berated by Mo'Nique. They will say "I just didn't like it. It was cruel and I shut it off." This is an impulse that I completely understand. People will ask if voters have a bias against black films. Of course they do! But if Precious is snubbed for the Oscar, this will be the rare case of white voters having the right idea.
The one sure shot is Mo'Nique, who could potentially win. I've decided that beyond the film having no idea what to do with her, I think she's quite good. Quick tangent: I simply disliked the movie until the ending. The very moment that the film decided to end, I became disgusted. THIS is the moment that Lee Daniels wants to leave us?!? Anyway...
The penultimate scene confuses me. It begins very amusingly with social worker Mariah Carey (pretty good, honestly) quizzing Precious about what ethnicity she is. It's a scene that plays out very well. Carey leaves the scene to get her a soda. While she's gone, Precious steals presumably her file and stores it away in her bag. Carey comes back and brings up Mo'Nique who seeks to reconcile with Precious. Mo'Nique plays an incredibly weak woman who is also incredibly sad, cruel, and desperate. And real. I felt like I was watching a very real person. There is a stream-of-consciousness panic to her climactic monologue that deserves something that Lee Daniels doesn't know what to do with. In her confession about allowing Precious to be molested if only to keep her man, she bounces between self-loathing and very directed hatred at Precious that is incredibly difficult to watch. Mariah Carey keeps her on point: why did you allow the abuse to continue. There's a lot more honesty to this scene re: abuse than anything in Good Will Hunting, mind you. For all its flaws, watching Mo'Nique skirt the issue has a shit load more to say than sweater-clad Robin Williams hugging Matt Damon. Armond White a while ago made a point that black people only win Oscars for playing either saints or monsters. Mo'Nique is playing a monster but she gives the movie the only thing that can be described as real, in the way she can't help but passively lash out at Precious even in this scene at the end.
Precious takes Mongo, tells Mariah Carey that she can't help her, tells her mother she wants nothing to do with her anymore, and decides to go off and take care of her babies. Mo'Nique chases Mariah Carey around a little. And Precious walks proudly away, smiling.
This is in theory a satisfying ending. But it's not because Mo'Nique deserves something the film refuses to give her. A stronger condemnation than a walk-off that may as well be accompanied to "R-E-S-P-E-C-T". Lee Daniels refuses to acknowledge what Mo'Nique's ultimately tragic figure has put out and - as he does so many times in the film - miscalculates the note in which we can even walk away from what we've seen. *THIS* is the moment when I thirst for more understanding and this is the precise moment he doesn't want to let us in anymore...the moment a precious monster bears her soul.
Does. Not. Work.
"If you are marching with white nationalists, you are by definition not a very nice person. If Malala Yousafzai had taken part in that rally, you'd have to say 'Okay, I guess Malala sucks now.'" ~ John Oliver