Its reputation as a sleeper hit aside, Lee Daniels' Precious is a tough, potentially alienating film--it deals in troubling themes (child abuse, incest, teen pregnancy, illiteracy, AIDS), and running them down makes the film sound like a non-stop, depressing scourge. But it is not that; it has humor, and joy, and life pulsing through it. Inventively, tenderly crafted and sensitively acted, it is a great American film that could have gone wrong in a million ways and savvily sidesteps all of them.
Gabourey Sidibe plays the title character, a 16-year-old still stuck in junior high, pregnant with her second child. She shares an apartment with her mother (Mo'Nique), a chain-smoking bully; both her mother and (mostly off-screen) father subject Precious to a stream of physical and mental abuse. Precious creates elaborate fantasies to escape from her impossible reality, dreaming of a glamorous and happy life that she fears she will never know. In desperation, her school principal sends her to an alternative school, where she is taught basic reading, writing, and arithmetic by Ms. Rain (Paula Patton); the interest and encouragement of a genuinely positive adult figure opens the young woman's eyes to what her life could be.
Hearing a synopsis like that, you can imagine the clichés and pitfalls that it could fall into; in the hands of the wrong writer and director, that story's got the makings of a Lifetime movie. Luckily, Precious has the right writer and director. Geoffrey Fletcher (adapting the novel Push by Sapphire, as awkwardly indicated by the film's full title) isn't afraid to make the centerpiece scenes of abuse and psychological terror (like Precious' return home with her newborn son) truly harrowing--they gobsmack the audience like blunt instruments. But he (and director Lee Daniels) knows that an audience needs variation from this kind of grim tragedy; we need escape valves and distractions, which the picture (thankfully) provides.
Even when the writing is spotty or obvious, Daniels' instincts are mostly good; Precious' fantasy life is richly, entertainingly drawn (and slickly shot, indicating that the picture's gritty, low-fi aesthetic is a stylistic choice rather than a necessity), though a couple of those sequences are goofily broad rather than poignant (I'm lookin' at you, foreign film on Mama's TV set), and somewhat out of place. Indeed, some of the tonal shifts are a bit too wild to play--you feel the strain of Daniels smashing pieces together that just don't fit, though his experimentation is welcome and certainly doesn't derail the enterprise.
In many ways, the heart at the movie's center are the scenes with Precious and her classmates (both in and out of school), which have a loose, offhand, improvisational vibe that goes a long way towards levity. Those scenes are anchored by the considerable warmth of Patton, an actor whose previous work (most notably as window dressing in films like Déjà Vu and Idlewild) gave no indication of the depths of her talent. For that matter, who knew Mariah Carey (more than holding her own in one of the movie's toughest scenes) had a performance like this in her, to say nothing of Mo'Nique, who is simply electrifying. (Some of the other pieces of stunt casting, like that of Lenny Kravitz or Sherri Shepherd, are less successful.)
All of them are in support of Sidibe, in (astonishingly) her film debut, turning in a beautifully modulated and stunningly controlled performance. She is completely shut off as the picture begins, in that particularly unforgiving way that hopeless teenagers are; her mouth is locked in frown, and it hardly seems that any light is making its way into her eyes. But as the film progresses, she slowly becomes comfortable in her own skin and develops, delicately, tentatively, into her own person; even her voice-overs become more confident and funny ("They talk like TV channels I don't watch"). That kind of transformation is stunning, particularly in a first-time performer--we're with her, all the way, and when she falls apart, it is shattering.
If the first half of Precious is tenuous, the second is unflinching and powerful, unrelenting in its sorrow yet simultaneously moving and forgiving. It is a bold, heartbreaking picture, and entirely worthy of the considerable praise it has received. It is, make no mistake, difficult viewing. But some films are worth the effort.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
The disc's VC-1 transfer is tricky; some may be put off by the grainy, low-down look, which lacks the sheen we've come to expect of new release Blu-rays. But it beautifully captures the low-fi, blown-out aesthetic of Andrew Dunn's distinctive, memorable photography. Much is basked in a golden amber glow that is nicely reproduced, as is the color saturation throughout the film. Black levels are rich, with a minimum of noise, and the fantasy sequences are slickly glossy and candy-coated.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is mostly concentrated to the front channels, not surprising for a character drama like this one. Dialogue is clean and clear in the center channel--an impressive feat, actually, considering how much of Precious' delivery is on the mumbly side. Front surrounds are only utilized occasionally, for environmental effects and music cues, while the rears and LFE channel primarily pop up (though effectively) during the fantasy sequences. But the mix is as it should be--operatic themes aside, it's a quiet, intimate film, and the audio reflects that quality.
A French 5.1 Dolby Digital track is also included, as are English, English SDH, and Spanish subtitles.
I can't argue with the results, but anyone who has seen or read an interview with director Lee Daniels knows that he is just a tad pretentious. His Audio Commentary is heartfelt, but damned near unlistenable--everything is bombastically over-explained, every actor is "my friend," and the track is full of moments like this explanation of getting a scene in one take: "That was God working." Early on, he says that it's hard to articulate his feelings about the film because, and I quote, "This film is not a film to me; this film is the life force." Uh huh.
The featurette "From Push to Precious" (15:22) is a look at the story's journey from the page to the screen, as explained by author Sapphire and director Daniels, while "A Precious Ensemble" (18:32) assembles cast and crew interviews, audition tapes, and behind-the-scenes footage to trace the casting process. "Oprah and Tyler: A Project of Passion" (9:31) focuses on the valuable involvement of Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry (both are interviewed, along with Daniels), while "A Conversation with Author Sapphire and Director Lee Daniels" (8:27) is pretty much as advertised (though it seems like this interview could have just been weaved in to the first featurette). Gabourey Sidibe's already-famed Audition (2:33) is up next, and it's a scorcher; you can see how she knocked everyone out in a blink.
There is but one Deleted Scene (1:45), a brief clip of Precious at an incest survivor meeting; it's interesting but a tad repetitious, so the exclusion is understandable. Daniels, Sidibe, and Paula Patton each provide brief "Reflections on Precious", which are valuable, but so short (12 to 20 seconds each) that their formatting as three separate items is a bit cumbersome. The film's original Theatrical Trailer (2:32) is also included, as are several additional Lionsgate trailers.
The second round of TV spots for Precious seemed designed primarily to counteract the only element of bad buzz in the film's considerable word-of-mouth success: that it is a downer, depressing, sad, etc. So Lionsgate put out an ad with upbeat music, smiling characters, and voice-over narration about how inspirational and uplifting the movie is. It is, perhaps, not the most honest television advertisement you've ever seen. Precious is, in fact, inspirational and uplifting, but it makes the viewer walk through fire to get there. It is a classical tragedy in the Greek sense, and runs its characters (and viewers) through a wringer of pity and terror on the way to its devastating catharsis.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.