All art is in some way manipulative. It’s trying to tell you how to feel, how to think, how to respond. Perhaps cinema is most manipulative of all. No other art form gives you so much information, instructing you in how to react. Novels can tell the same stories, but the moving pictures are the ones in your head. Paintings provide the images, but how you decipher them is left entirely up to you. Music is perhaps the most fluid of all the arts, offering emotional release anchored by little else. Movies, on the other hand, give you the pictures, the emotion, the music cues, the symbolism, and manipulate them all before your eyes to provoke the intended response. As Alfred Hitchcock once said, “I enjoy playing the audience like a piano.” But when a filmmaker is pulling your strings, those strings are supposed to be invisible.
In Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, you can see the strings. How much of the problem is with the material or with Lee Daniels’ direction can be hard to tell, as the two often seem to be acting against each other. The film is the story of Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), a poor, overweight black girl trapped in a life of poverty and torment. She is not stupid. She is uneducated, the failing of a system that cares far too little. She lives with her mother Mary (Mo’Nique), a cruel woman who accuses Precious of stealing her man. That this man, Precious’ father, raped her, and that Mary knows this and witnessed this, means little to her. Precious stole her man, and he gave Precious a child, with another on the way.
A school counselor sees Precious’ potential, and arranges for her admittance to an “alternative school” that will be able to help her. Once there, Precious meets Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), who believes in her. Also believing in her is Ms. Weiss (a de-glammed Mariah Carey), though she is far more attuned to the realities of the system. Will Precious overcome her poverty and her mother’s cruelty to get an education and raise her children? It would be unfair to call this a Lifetime plot, because it takes risks and delves into subjects far grittier than anything on the Lifetime channel ever would. But doesn’t this sound familiar? Haven’t you seen this a million times before?
Of course, as with any idea, its fate lies in its execution. The acting, luckily, is good, at times so good that you want to believe the movie can escape its trappings. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe plays Precious realistically and with intelligence, which is impressive, because I’d wager many actresses wouldn’t think to give her the quiet dignity she has. Paula Patton has the standard inspirational teacher bit, and she fills the role well, at least as well as you’d expect. Mariah Carey is oddly absent for most of the movie (when, near the end, she says that she and Precious have been talking in her office for a year, my first thought was, “Really?”), but she’s surprisingly strong, even if it’s a throwaway role.
Mo’Nique, though, is the highlight. I can’t say that I’ve seen her in much, but she usually sticks to the kinds of comedies that make you weep for the comedy genre. Here, she does a complete 180, creating a terrifying woman in whose petty worldview her child is a rival, and her grandchildren parting shots from the man who left her. She’s capable of horrific acts of physical and emotional abuse; you never know what lines she’s willing to cross. Mo’Nique’s performance also gets to the heart of why the movie doesn’t work, even if it's through no fault of her own.
Her big emotional scene serves as the film’s climax. It’s the one scene where the curtain is pulled away and we see Mary as a real, deeply hurt human being, and Mo’Nique is selling it. Really selling it. Lee Daniels, though, seems almost purposely ignorant of it. Timed perfectly for maximum melodrama, the camera zooms in on Mo’Nique’s upturned palms, grasping at the sky. It shakes not with visceral emotion, but with phony TV style, randomly pushing in on the actors’ faces at the worst times. There are your strings.
Elsewhere, Daniels tries for a bold Spike Lee-style audacity, but there too his melodramatic instincts get the better of him. Precious has a number of fantasy sequences, where she’s attending a lavish movie premiere or shooting a glitzy music video, and each one feels cheaper than the last. She’s got a crush on one of her teachers, and his school photo speaks to her, telling her he’s going to “kick that white lady out of my house” to be with her. There are a number of tricks like this, and they all feel like a desperate ploy to choke you with emotion. Interestingly, Precious is not the only American film this year to transport its characters to a black-and-white foreign film daydream. The other was the inventive romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer, and while there it contributed to the magic and whimsy, in Precious it’s jarring and more than a little ridiculous.
I can see why critics and audiences are flocking to Precious, even if I don’t really understand it. It’s got some tough performances, and desperately claws at your heartstrings whenever it can. I guess I get the appeal. But even considering its legitimate strengths, and its gimmicks, to me it’s the same ol’, same ol’. At least none of the inspirational characters are white.