LONDON: Not so ‘Precious’

Posted by · 7:30 pm · October 26th, 2009

PreciousAt this early stage in the awards race, I’ve been getting along unusually well with every major contender I’ve encountered: “The Hurt Locker,” “An Education,” “Up in the Air,” along with darker horses like “Bright Star” and “A Single Man,” have all been pleasing, giving me hope that this would be one of those rare Oscar years when I could contentedly roll with any outcome.

Something had to break, I suppose. And it’s with not a little regret that I write this, but it broke this afternoon as I finally encountered Lee Daniels’s much-vaunted “Precious” for the first time.

I understand and respect what has moved the critical majority so profoundly about this abrasive, eccentric film. It visits such extremities of physical and psychic pain that it does invite a kind of emotional responsibility towards its protagonist; if Daniels did have as heavy a creative hand in “Monster’s Ball” as he claims, one could draw an interesting comparison between the two films’ almost mythic excesses of female suffering.

But as nobly as Daniels’ fearsomely committed cast reaches for our sympathies, I found myself turned off by the garish and occasionally condescending methods by which the frantically over-directed film around them does the same. Subtlety is not Daniels’ modus operandi, which would be fine if the film didn’t so often get its cultural and ideological lines crossed, and didn’t meander so  haphazardly between Precious’s own perspective and that of a more worldly third person.

For example, the film’s running motif of fantasy cutaways which provocatively illustrate the title character’s diminished self-image — either BET-style music video sequences in which she makes out with a much-prized “light-skinned boyfriend” or a quieter scene where she stands before the mirror and make-believes a skinny white blonde staring back at her — raise fascinating questions of cultural stereotyping and auto-racism that Precious critically isn’t asking of herself, but later ducks out of addressing them by reverting to the less heightened perspective and more practical concerns of her everyday life.

This line of exploration is intelligently conceived if incompletely realized, but the film completely loses its marbles in a comic sequence in which Precious’s miserable domestic life is played as an Italian neorealist pastiche; BET send-ups are one thing, but to parody (however earnestly) the protagonist’s troubles via a cultural reference that elitist, that far removed from her own experience and education, is a cruelly high-minded trick. (Even that, however, is more defensible than the irredeemably crass shot wherein Daniels positions the heavily pregnant Precious in front of a billboard promoting animal neutering. Ick.)

Such obnoxious missteps are all the more vexing because the film is warm and affecting when it abandons such clever-clever editorializing and just lets its characters speak: there’s a garrulous spontaneity to the classroom sequences where Precious bonds with other hard-luck women at an alternative education facility, though the film only narrowly skirts artier “Dangerous Minds” territory with Paula Patton’s progressive, halo-crowned teacher.

Perhaps inevitably, given these wild tonal lurches, the characterization of Precious herself wavers between the stonily unquestioning and the bitingly self-aware, though Gabourey Sidibe is a sufficiently empathetic presence to mostly smooth over these inconsistencies.

Meanwhile, the abundance of praise for Mo’Nique’s performance as Mary, Precious’s rampantly abusive mother, is by no means misplaced. A veritable hurricane in an already busy movie, her early rancorous rants against her daughter are impressive but have a faint air of actorly exercise to them; the peformance really opens up in the justly lauded confessional of her (and the film’s) final scene, where she furiously reveals the roots of her own mental illness without once stooping to victimhood.

It’s a startling scene, though it proves an imbalanced conclusion to an already muddled film: this may be Precious’s underdog narrative, but I left the theater with the peculiar sense that it was Mary — and, of course, Mo’Nique — who had won. “Precious” is an appropriately difficult pill to swallow, but I’m struggling with the aftertaste.

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38 responses so far

  • 1 10-26-2009 at 7:48 pm

    Andrew R. said...

    Frankly, I’m not surprised you weren’t up in arms about it after reading what you thought about the source material a few months ago. I’ve been anticipating this.

  • 2 10-26-2009 at 7:48 pm

    Michael said...

    interesting Guy, I cannot wait to see this film now that I have read your review. I thought it sounded too good to be true as an Oscar dominating tour de force (although I am starting to notice from some like Jeffrey Wells that perhaps the movie is not the sure fire contender so many people are making it out to be.) Your bring up some interesting points that I had not been aware of in regards to this film (such as some of the fantasy elements and the possible inconsistency in the “message” being overdirected). I will be curious to see how I feel about the movie after I have seen it, but your review gives me some things to think about for sure.

  • 3 10-26-2009 at 7:50 pm

    Michael said...

    interesting Guy, I cannot wait to see this film now that I have read your review. I thought it sounded too good to be true as an Oscar dominating tour de force (although I am starting to notice from some like Jeffrey Wells that perhaps the movie is not the sure fire contender so many people are making it out to be.) Your review bring up some interesting points that I had not been aware of in regards to this film (such as some of the fantasy elements and the possible inconsistency in the “message” being overdirected). I will be curious to see how I feel about the movie after I have seen it, but you give me some things to think about for sure.

  • 4 10-26-2009 at 7:54 pm

    James D. said...

    I have been hesitant to criticize this film with the unanimous hype it has received. I thought the trailer was dreadful and I have been thinking this would disappoint. Good to hear I am not alone.

  • 5 10-26-2009 at 7:55 pm

    Michael said...

    sorry about the repeat comment, I thought I figured out a way to cheat without getting caught (i.e. go back a page before the new screen loaded after submitting the comment and fixing my grammar errors) but I should have figured it was too good to be true.

  • 6 10-26-2009 at 8:05 pm

    Curtis said...

    This movie will be a done deal next week. Rave reviews will start to roll in and after oprah does a full week on her show this film will be a boxoffice. Nothing can stop Precious at this point. To many people love this film. Sorry the London critic did not like it but alot of people do. This movie has to many awards, love and hype behind at this point.

  • 7 10-26-2009 at 8:06 pm

    Patryk said...

    Maybe too much “Shadowboxer” and not enough “Monster’s Ball?” I

  • 8 10-26-2009 at 8:12 pm

    Kevin said...

    For every bad review precious gets it will get about 5 raves. It just one of those powerful films that has taken everybody by storm all year. At this point it is fire. Hell just looks at rotten tomatoes. 16 review so far a d 15 of them are good. Precious is just that one movie that gets alot of love. Like slumdog and Juno

  • 9 10-26-2009 at 8:13 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Michael: I should clarify that, like Kris, I still think this is the film to beat. My personal opinions don’t enter that equation.

  • 10 10-26-2009 at 8:17 pm

    Rob said...

    “Good to hear I am not alone.”

    Um, Guy saw the movie and wasn’t a fan. You saw a trailer and have already decided you’re going to hate it. You two aren’t quite in the same boat.

    And Michael, I wouldn’t take Jeffrey Wells’ opinion as indicative of anything, especially when said film features characters both black AND obese. Jus’ sayin’.

  • 11 10-26-2009 at 8:34 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Interesting, but even more so considering you’d write this:

    “though the film only narrowly skirts artier “Dangerous Minds” territory”

    …yet forgive similar derivation in “The Class.”

    Anyway, aside from you being fired, this is a refreshing take from the other side, I have to say. As in, I disagree with your interpretations but I believe they are honest interpretations.

  • 12 10-26-2009 at 8:39 pm

    Manbear said...

    Kris, I have been reading that precious was a hit in London over the weekend. Maybe this one guy did not like the film but that is not what most people in London are saying about the movie. What have you heard from London.

  • 13 10-26-2009 at 8:40 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    For me, “The Class” entirely escaped such territory because its teacher figure was so critically conflicted, and made such problematic decisions. But that’s me.

    Glad we can again agree to disagree. This is how it’s done.

  • 14 10-26-2009 at 8:42 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Manbear: Clearly you want Kris’s take, but as someone who is actually there, I can confirm that the film played extremely well in London.

    As always, my opinion is just that … I speak for no larger group, and certainly not for an entire city.

  • 15 10-26-2009 at 8:57 pm

    Matthew said...

    I finally got around to seeing “The Class” the other day. Dear goodness, that movie was unbelievable. Phenomenal movie.

  • 16 10-26-2009 at 9:01 pm

    Manbear said...

    Thank Lodge, I already knew what Kris thought about the film but he seems to have all the inside information so i just wanted to make sure that i was not reading something wrong with the crowd reaction from London. That for the info. This londo critics may just did not get the film. I did not like Slumdog at all but alot of people did. no film is 100% loved and precious will be no diffrent.

  • 17 10-26-2009 at 9:06 pm

    Rob said...

    For the record, I agree with Kris’s and Guy’s evaluation of “Precious’s” place in the Oscar race, but with all the talk of ‘Anti-Oprah sentiment’ and how “dark and difficult” the film is, no one has mentioned what I think MIGHT be the film’s biggest weakness when it comes to potentially winning: that it’s bound to play much, much better with women than men, when the latter makes up a majority of the Academy’s membership.

  • 18 10-26-2009 at 9:38 pm

    red_wine said...

    Kevin says, “Like slumdog and Juno”. But that’s not a point in Precious’ favor, is it. But oh yeah, this might very well turn out to be this year’s Slumdog. Many people have been saying this now.

  • 19 10-26-2009 at 9:47 pm

    red_wine said...

    And Class was so interesting because even the teacher was a douche in some ways (Not like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, all inspiring and stuff). But a smart douche nevertheless and I still kinda liked him. A lot of teachers said that his ways of teaching & interacting were all wrong.

  • 20 10-26-2009 at 9:49 pm

    AmericanRequiem said...

    bout time we have a change in opinion, i cant stand another year with the season over so early, slumdog, no country, and the departed sealed the deal way to early, lets see a real showdown this year

  • 21 10-26-2009 at 10:32 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    And so the lines are drawn: Kris on one side, Guy on the other, and others (like Nick Davis and Nat R) in the middle.

    Can’t wait to join in.

  • 22 10-26-2009 at 11:07 pm

    tintin said...

    Precious is a BP film…that´s all.

  • 23 10-27-2009 at 3:08 am

    mike said...

    interesting review, we shall see. all i wanna know is how much is this film gon make, cant imagine it being a hit, 2 much of a downer it would seem. people go 2 movies 2 be happy, not depressed. good luck 2 the film and cast though seems like great people behind it.

  • 24 10-27-2009 at 3:46 am

    Andrew said...

    Bright star is indeed a dark horse, but I notice you dont have it as a contender in any major category??

  • 25 10-27-2009 at 4:13 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Kris doesn’t. My predictions (which admittedly need some updating) are more favorable.

  • 26 10-27-2009 at 4:18 am

    Loyal said...

    Precious was always going to be a dark and depressing film because of the original source material. Mary forces Precious to perform cunninglingus on her in the book (wisely kept out of the film).

    This is dark and dank subject matter even for a voting body like the AMPAS that wants to be cool, hip, and forward thinking. Is Ernest Borgnine really going to embrace Precious?

  • 27 10-27-2009 at 4:32 am

    Brent said...

    There is no such derivation in The Class. I thought it was extremely well done, particularly the characterization of the instructor.

  • 28 10-27-2009 at 7:19 am

    John H. Foote said...

    I for one did not find “Precious” depressing — powerful, yes, bleak, yes, altogether brilliant, yes and finally, oddly, inspiring, when one consideres what that girl is attempting to overcome — sorry to hear the film was not for you Guy — I as you know loved it and consider it the best thing I have seen this year, ahead of “The Hurt Locker” and “Up” both brilliant — I think it’s on a level with “Raging Bull” but Lee Daniels needs to be quiet for a while…too much mouth…

  • 29 10-27-2009 at 7:49 am

    Mike said...

    Just wondering Guy, do you think the fact that you’ve already seen and loved Fish Tank had any effect on your opinion of Precious? Because I have to admit that it likely did on mine. At TIFF I saw Fish Tank in the morning and Precious in the Evening and was shocked at just how much I felt the former exposed the latter. Certainly much of Precious is powerful stuff and there’s no denying Mo’Nique’s and Sibide’s performances, but Daniels paints with such blunt and obvious strokes that at times I even felt like my intelligence as an audience member was being insulted.

    In fact, I think that Precious is way, way more like Slumdog Millionaire than anyone would be willing to admit, with the exception being that what works for a romantic crowd-pleasing fantasy doesn’t work when you’re ostensibly trying to create the real and terrible truth about an abused and abandoned girl in America.

    I just think that Precious rolls in thuddingly obvious imagery and despite the terrible situations that occur throughout, it offers remarkably easy answers where Fish Tank does not.

    A second viewing would probably do me good, and I’ll return to Precious come its release But in the meantime, all I can do is ask that everyone who sees in Precious what I do not be sure to check out Fish Tank however they can. Then we can draw our own conclusions and everyone can be happy. Er, yeah…

  • 30 10-27-2009 at 8:54 am

    Michael said...

    I just have to say that I really find it interesting when Kris and Guy disagree or have differing opinions. It’s one of the things I find most refreshing about this site. Also, it makes me laugh everytime Kris tells Guy he’s fired for not sharing the same opinion (I know its a joke I just find it funny.)

    Also, I did misread your article Guy in that I assumed you were stating that the movie was not as much of a contender, but now I understand that you still believe it is the one to beat, even if you personally did not find it as admirable as others. I am interested to see the film now to see where my thoughts lie.

    And Rob, I agree with you, I certainly take Jeff Wells opinions with a grain of salt but it was interesting that on the same day he made reservations about Precious known, Guy Lodge also reviewed the film in a slightly less positive light.

  • 31 10-27-2009 at 9:40 am

    Ben M. said...

    I actually had some similar feelings when I saw the film at NYFF (though perhaps a bit more positive). I think Mo’Nique is amazing and more than deserves her praise but the rest of the movie was just good, not great.

  • 32 10-27-2009 at 6:22 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Mike: Interesting, but I don’t actually think my admiration for “Fish Tank” had much bearing on my experience of “Precious.”

    Aside from the obvious parallel of them both being about troubled teenaged girls, I don’t think the films’ thematic concerns are at all similar — “Fish Tank” being more focused on sexual discovery as opposed to the self-improvement drive of “Precious.” (Another of my problems with the latter film, as it happens: it squeamishly avoids the possibility of Precious’s sexual re-education, de-sexing her to the point where she cutely has to play cupid for other, prettier people, which I found patronising in the extreme.)

    Anyway, I digress: since my problems with “Precious” derived more from its irresponsibility towards its characters than its aesthetic shortcomings, “Fish Tank” doesn’t really enter the equation — though I obviously think the latter is the infinitely superior film. You raise some very strong points, though.

    (PS. In my eyes, “An Education” is actually a far stronger thematic counterpoint to “Fish Tank.”)

    Michael: Interesting, and nothing more. I hadn’t even read Jeff’s piece before I published mine … I certainly wouldn’t want to be thought of as partaking in any kind of backlash, as I’m sure you understand.

  • 33 10-28-2009 at 3:38 am

    Michael Parsons said...

    Of course not everyone is going to like the movie. It stirs up some very uncomfortable emotions when watching it.
    These are emotions I have yet to come to terms with. I simply do not understand them completely, but I do not blame the film. It asks some urgent questions about the education system, the sometimes competitive relationship between mothers and daughters, where this competition stems from, the ignoring of mental illness. Not to mention how the downtrodden and ignored are able to get out of a world that ignores them.
    These are all so complex that no film can tackle them all, but at least ‘Precious’ asks them. Does Precious analyze her reasons for seeing a thin blonde white girl in the mirror? Of course not, she does not have the education or self confidence to reflect on why she feels the way she does. Near the end of the film she looks in the mirror and sees herself – it may be simplistic, but I think you expect too much from her?

    “Another of my problems with the latter film, as it happens: it squeamishly avoids the possibility of Precious’s sexual re-education, de-sexing her to the point where she cutely has to play cupid for other, prettier people, which I found patronising in the extreme.”

    Victim of sexual molestation or in this case, rape from the age of three, are not going to be sexually educated over night. And unless you have been in that situation (which ironically Mo’Nique has) you cannot really judge. It is a deeply personal and difficult things to come to terms with, yet alone get over.

    I can see what the main problem people will have with the film. You want Precious to be ok, but you know she has so much to work on. The last frame of the film leaves you with hope for her, but the knowledge that things can get so much worse for her.
    And this leaves us all with a little guilt, and no one likes to be made to feel guilty.

  • 34 10-28-2009 at 5:53 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    With the greatest of respect, I felt concerned for Precious throughout the film, but I didn’t feel at all guilty.

  • 35 10-28-2009 at 9:46 pm

    Encore Entertainment said...

    I haven’t seen this yet. It’s not within my ten most anticipated, though I’m sure it’ll be fine. I have to say though Guy I really like this piece. Even without seeing the film you raise some good points.

  • 36 10-29-2009 at 6:48 am

    Patrick said...

    “mythic excesses of female suffering”

    – what is mythic about it? this happens. all the time. right now!

  • 37 10-29-2009 at 10:48 am

    head_wizard said...

    Your arguments against the film seem fair Guy, I have been iffy about this film failing into cliche, when you mentioned her playing cupid I almost gagged.

  • 38 10-29-2009 at 11:17 am

    Ryan said...

    SPOILER As someone who’s seen the film, I’m a bit confused as to why you find that foriegn film segment so offensive and distasteful. Yes, I agree that Precious isn’t a character that would seek out that kind of film, but if I remember correctly, the film just happens to be playing on the TV, and neither Precious or her mother are paying that much attention to it, it’s something that is just on due to channel surfing. The fact that Precious notices it and starts to fantasize, is that really THAT far fetched? No offense, but I think you’re being a little condescending here, as if foriegn flicks are only able to be comprehended by the educated or by cinephiles.

    That said, I see what you’re saying with some of the criticism. I do feel, particuarily in the first half, that the film is pretty manipulative and overbearing. However, I do think that if you stick with it, the film ends up being legitimately moving and fulfilling. This is mainly due to the acting, particuarily the lead actress, who I think should absolutely be nominated.