Precious (Lee Daniels, 2009)
Category: Sad domestic abuse movie. I know I shouldn’t get into the habit of classifying how sad things are, or comparing them to each other, but here I am. (Still working on the disease bracket, BTW.) I’ll just put this out there: I think that domestic abuse is probably sadder than random abuse. While it would undoubtedly be rather unnerving to be beat up or yelled at by a complete stranger, the concept of being abused by someone in your family is terrible. Your family is supposed to love you! Or at the very least, not beat you up or say mean things to you. Gosh. Look, I understand that sometimes, family members can get on your nerves. Like if they always give you the weird fork when they set the table for dinner, even though you’ve told them not to like six times, because there are enough normal forks for everyone, and is it just that they’re stupid and keep forgetting about it or are they doing it on purpose, because if so then you’re gonna jam that weird fork right in their weird face. I get all that. But at the end of the day, that’s something that you should bring up to Mom first, before you take matters into your own hands. There’s always a peaceful solution to these things.
Precious is also a sad movie about poverty. The whole fact that poverty exists is kinda lame; I’m pretty sure we’ve got enough stuff to go around. Sort it out, Obama.
My familiarity with this issue: As discussed in the past on this blog, my family life was quite nice and abuse-free. (Maybe there were times when brother of the blog Tony Krizel wanted to start something, but he knew better. You don’t step to this.) But of course I have known people who had tough family situations; distant or absent or verbally abusive parents, that sort of thing. It’s terrible, especially when you’re in high school and you have no idea what the hell is going on anyway. It’s nice to have parents who have a better of idea of things than you do at that age. And it also sucks that this thing tends to be kind of cyclical. The damage that poor parenting inflicts on children can easily get passed on to the children’s children, and so forth. Tough stuff.
As for my familiarity with this film: it was pretty ubiquitous last year during Oscar season and such, so I’ve read a decent amount about it. I have not read the novel Push by Sapphire, on which the movie is based. I know that Precious is based on the novel Push by Sapphire because the movie is actually called Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire. You’ll notice I didn’t write the whole thing out at the top. That’s because it’s bullshit. Since when is this an acceptable thing? The only time I can remember this being done is when the Leonardo DiCaprio version of Romeo and Juliet was called William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet. That is more acceptable, because he’s SHAKESPEARE. This is a woman who’s named after a gem. It’s not OK. Good for Sapphire for getting her name out there or whatever, but Jesus. This has made me so irrationally angry for a year now.
Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “In Harlem, an overweight, illiterate teen who is pregnant with her second child is invited to enroll in an alternative school in hopes that her life can head in a new direction.”
What I thought of the movie: It made me uncomfortable. Sometimes, this is a good thing. And maybe for certain parts of this movie, it was the good kind of uncomfortable. It depicted a world that I don’t want to have ever existed, inhabited by people for whom there is little or no hope to speak of, and made me consider the ramifications of living in such a world. Movies like Precious have the capability, by sheer virtue of their subject matter, to shake people out of their upper-class complacency and really consider what life is like for those less fortunate. But, for the most part, instead of doing that, Precious made me the angry kind of uncomfortable. The filmmakers had an opportunity to tell a truly engaging story about characters dealing with really terrible stuff, and tried to do too much. Watching this movie was just an ordeal, with no payoff, no catharsis, no lessons, and ultimately no meaning.
A lot of the problems I had were, I imagine, the direct result of director Lee Daniels’s choices. Precious features a number of short fantasy sequences, where Precious imagines herself as a popular, famous celebrity with a fantasy boyfriend and fantasy talents and such. There’s also a bunch of times in the movie where dramatic or depressing scenes are accompanied by upbeat music, to underscore the quotidian misery of Precious’s existence. These juxtapositions frequently made me mad. They were distracting or hamhanded or dumb, and at times all three. Daniels also gives us shot after shot of fatty foods frying in a pan, and scene after scene of Precious’s mother, oh my God, just being the worst human being that has ever existed, and it’s just piling on after a while. I’ll return to this point later.
But the story itself, or at least how it’s presented in the movie, is kind of the worst part, particularly how it ends. The big dramatic final scene has Mariah Carey (not playing herself, by the way, although that would have been awesome; but no she plays a social worker, and they really ugly her up for it), who we’ve seen like twice in the movie before but we’re supposed to understand what she represents, confronting Precious’s monster of a mother for all the terrible stuff that she’s done. At this point Precious has liberated herself from the mother and is taking steps towards improving her life, and so this scene really feels forced. It doesn’t come close to working. This is Mo’Nique’s big Oscar scene, and she does a good job of crying, but it just felt so empty, so pointless, and so calculated. I’ll get to why this is in a minute, but the end of the movie just left me kind of dazed and confused. And not in a good, Led Zeppelin kind of way.
How I related to the movie: I couldn’t. (Aside from the fact that I am a skinny white boy and therefore pretty much the anti-Precious.) The supporting characters are really poorly conceived and developed and unrelatable, and even the character of Precious isn’t nearly as well-developed as she should be. But it’s the other characters that really stick in my craw. In an effort to show Precious’s mother as a monster, and her teacher as a saint, the filmmakers make both of them completely unbelievable characters. By which I don’t mean that I don’t believe that there are horrible mothers out there, or saintly teachers. I’m sure there are. But within the context of the story, and next to a relatively three-dimensional character like Precious, I did not believe them. For Christ's sake, she tries to drop a television onto her daughter's head, as she's holding her three-day-old son. We get it.
I understand that bad stuff like this happens to people. I have so much empathy for people that deal with abuse, with incest, with obesity, with teenage pregnancy and motherhood, with AIDS. (Oh yeah she has AIDS too. I didn’t know that going in. Add that to the list.) And it just felt like the point of the movie was to keep piling more and more and more on so that we would eventually have no choice but to surrender and agree that the movie was powerful and real and moving. But you have to earn that! You can’t just throw sad shit at the screen and hope it sticks. You can’t create a character like Precious just to manipulate my emotions. You have to be telling me about her because you care about her. And you have to surround her with deep and complex and realistic characters that remind us of actual people, so that we really can empathize with her. If the filmmakers had really cared about her, they would’ve put the work in, cut out the unnecessary shit, and done that. But they didn’t, or they couldn’t, and as a result Precious is just exploitative.
How I felt after the movie ended: You can probably tell. I’ve been in possession of the DVD for this movie for at least three weeks. It’ll be great to finally return it. Next on my queue: Beaches! FFFFFFUUUUUUUU--