Lee Daniels’ 2009 drama Precious remains a source of controversy in the film community. Positive and negative criticisms of the film tend to form a hyperbolic spectrum. While Precious is borderline maudlin at times, the film provides the unique and necessary contrast to last week’s showing of Boyz N The Hood at 5th Avenue Cinema.
Similar to the bildungsroman genre of literature, Precious and Boyz N The Hood perform a cinematic coming of age set in poverty-stricken communities such as 1987 Harlem for Precious and 1990s South Central Los Angeles in Boyz. However, while John Singleton’s film espouses the virtues of familial relations, Precious conveys the reality of when those support structures do not exist.
Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) delivers a terrific performance as a young woman struggling to build an identity while contending with an abusive mother and becoming pregnant by her own father. The majority of the film’s performances are well done, including Mariah Carey as Ms. Weiss, the compassionate social worker, and Mo’Nique as Mary, the worst mother imaginable.
The film’s performances are a relief because Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey S. Fletcher have had something of a tone problem when it comes to delivering melodrama. At its best, Precious is a grim, unflinching look at one of the absolute worst situations in which a young woman could find herself. At its worst, the film can’t choose which bad things to have happen to the protagonist, so it opts for all of them, causing some strain on the credulity of the film.
The biblical figure of Job had an easier life than Precious, and somewhere within the HIV scares, babies born with mental disabilities and pervasive forms of child abuse, the hardship becomes a bit too fetishized to watch. Daniels builds tragedy upon tragedy until the production takes on the air of misery porn. Aside from its occasional forays into the realm of soap opera–style melodrama, including brief fantasy sequences depicting Precious’ modest dreams, the film stays grounded and raw in a way that few films dare.
The majority of Precious’ positive feedback hails from Gabourey Sidibe’s acting performance and the moving nature of the story. On the less positive side, critics who dissed Precious stood behind criticism involving its dichotomy between horrible tragedy and squeaky clean family morals.
Another high point of Precious is its well earned third act and hopeful ending. The film’s final moments don’t feel like a concession to audiences’ desire for a happy ending—unlike The Blind Side, which felt the need to tie everything up with a bow by the end. In spite of all this, I highly recommend you check the film out over the weekend and formulate your own thoughts for a difficult movie to feel neutral about.