Friday, September 17, 2010

Maggie 2010: A Little Too... Precious

#101. Precious

Lest I be accused of hating films with "happy" endings, let me first come out explicitly asserting that, yes! I do in fact like films with happy endings. And no, I'm not just talking about the kind where a beautiful woman takes a well-deserved cryo-nap after kicking some serious alien butt. When a happy ending is earned in any genre setting, it's a beautiful thing. It's George Bailey gathering Zuzu in his arms and watching Clarence's bell ring amid New Year's caroling. It's the Tramp too speechless with love to do anything but gaze upon the woman his hard-won charity has spared from blindness, and having her identify him by the gentlest touch. Among more recent films, it's a triumphant Maori girl named Pai surviving immense prejudice to follow her dreams, or an old man touching down in the foreign land he and his late wife had so long hoped to explore. Happy endings are wonderful, especially when achieved despite tremendous losses and through unrelenting hardships; and for this reason, again, yes, I enjoy them as much I do their far bleaker, more unsettling counterparts.

However, I most emphatically draw the line at any film writer/director who thinks they can heap up suffering like so many cold pig's feet on a plate of heavy mash and then sprinkle the magic fairy dust of "BELIEF IN YOURSELF!" to wring a sense of catharsis out of their thus-fatted viewers. As you can well imagine, this is how I felt myself being used while watching Precious.

And I wanted to like Precious. I really, really did. I find the main character, an illiterate sixteen-year-old bearing a second child of incest in a household permeated by abuse, played to perfection by the young and talented Gabourey Sidibe. She really could not have done anything more to make the film a success; I just fervently wish she had a director, a producer, and a script backing her up every step of the way. Yes, to an extent director Lee Daniels was working under the constraints of the film's source material, a 1996 novel by Sapphire called Push, but that remains little excuse for the heavy-handed stylistic choices that reveal monstrous details of personal suffering for emotional effect, then conveniently push them aside whenever the reality of those details threatens the feel-good, YES-YOU-CAN, I-read-The-Secret-and-it-changed-my-life message that's supposed to make us all believers in ourselves by the time the credits roll.

The most obvious example of this is the means by which acts of violence against Precious are immediately glossed over with dream sequences (mostly of Precious-as-celebrity blowing kisses at many admirers). This technique is used a handful of times throughout the film -- when her mother throws objects at her head, when Precious is shoved by punks, when she's giving birth, when she's being raped by her father -- and each and every time it's telling viewers something we already know: that Precious wishes she were anywhere else but then, and there, and in that skin. Well, duh.

The problem with this directorial choice is that it takes the act of empathy out of our hands. Instead of being able to bear witness to Precious' immediate, real-world discomfort or outright suffering, and in the process evaluate her experiences in contrast to our own, we are forced to focus instead on the persistent dreaming that seems to emphasize how she in particular is deserving of escape. In consequence, the audience is not given time to personalize its exposure to Precious' suffering, and Sidibe is similarly denied a crucial opportunity to let her truly striking portrayal of Precious convey those emotional truths all on its own.

Perhaps I wouldn't be so hard on this film if it weren't built on so sensational a groundwork, but as it is Precious packs some pretty heavy subject matter, from incest and rape to physical and verbal abuse, to the transmission of HIV, to basic child neglect, and hunger, and poverty. Yet for all that these issues are foregrounded and indeed blatantly attested to in narrative and dialogue throughout the film, none of them are addressed with the rigour and consistency they deserve.

The most absurd example of this arises when Precious tells a social worker (Maria Carey) she's been raped by her father: oddly enough, no mention is even made of a police report being filed pursuant to that conversation. Thelma and Louise may have questioned the use if calling the police in their rape case (and subsequent manslaughter), but social workers have a duty to report. Another conveniently underdeveloped thread is the question of future romance: Lenny Kravitz, playing a benevolent nurse in the maternity ward after Precious gives birth, is the only clue the audience gets as to how Precious will interact with men from here on out, and even he skedaddles before the HIV matter pops up, a debilitating can of worms all its own.

In fact, one would do well to ask "Where are all the men?" when watching this film. Even the impassioned alternative school teacher, Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), who opens her doors to Precious for Christmas, is conveniently in a lesbian relationship -- a mainstream presentation I'd usually be celebrating, except that here it feels suspiciously like another means by which to avoid having Precious interact with other men in her new life. All Precious' new classmates are female, too, as if boys never need alternative, rudimentary schooling in author Sapphire's world. Precious never even so much as re-evaluates her initial daydream of a life with her math teacher, a male, in her new, post-literacy world.

Indeed, so far as this film is concerned, Precious has essentially waltzed into a fiercely protective women's commune, and that whole other sex, with all their raping and familial abandonment, is of no great import when resolving the film's own crisis points. Confronting the abusive mother is central to this film's conclusion, yes! But when Precious learns how permanently her father's out of the picture, where is even a moment's struggle with the notion of never being able to confront him for what he's done?

Obviously the notion of descending into a community of nurturing women to escape one's traumatic past is a common one: it's at the heart of such films as The Secret Life of Bees, The Joy Luck Club, Fried Green Tomatoes, and The Color Purple (also all novel adaptions).

But ultimately, it's this director's heavy-handed stylistic devices, which so often and so annoyingly supplant an excellent performance from Sidibe, that makes Precious nearly intolerable while the aforementioned others all bear their own strengths (with The Color Purple in particular winning my endorsement over this film, for its integration of men in the protagonist's quest for resolution). So by all means, watch Precious for Sidibe's acting, which amply deserved the 2009 Oscar nom for Best Actress, but don't hold your breath waiting for an ending that's both optimistic and earned. You won't find one here.

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