Oct 23, 2009

Precious: not a great film, just a good one

Precious is as good as a movie can get with a mediocre director. Much of it is powerful and compassionate. Gabby Sidibe's presence in the movie — and it is a presence, more than a performance — is formidable, her face impassive, her eyes almost closed. It's an unforgettable portrait of a girl locked into both her body and the direness of her circumstances. When Precious moves around the class-room, everyone watches the edges of their desks; when her mother rains down blows upon her, her sullen features become a kind of stoic mask. The scenes in her home in the projects — where Mom sits smoking, watching TV, while pig's feet boil on the stove — offer a vision of dereliction as indelible as anything in The Wire. Its gritty, raw, unflinching etc etc. Where the film starts to go wrong are the fantasy sequences that the director Lee Daniels has adorned his film, showing Precious in excelsis, revelling in boyfriends, flashbulbs and all sorts of fabulosity. I can see why he was tempted to include these sequences, as a reprieve from an otherwise unrelenting diet of of rape and molestation — it gives the film that Slumdog mix of glitter and grunge — but it was a mistake, both aesthetically and psychologically. For one thing these sequences expose Sidibe's limitations as an actress: at the point when the film should be most lyrical, all we see is a pudding in a sparkly dress. They also cut in in the clunkiest fashion, at the very moment when Precious is being most abused, as if to reinforce the point that it is only through fantasy that she can escape. Uh-uh. Maybe in the privacy of her bedroom, late at night, as she fends off tears, she might comfort herself with fantasy, but not in the moment, as she is being shoved down onto the sidewalk, as she is being raped, as Daniels has it here. On the evidence of this film (I haven't seen the others), he is a daring, provocative and tremendously unsubtle director. During another sequence, in which Precious stumblingly reads from a picture book, Daniels cuts back to her rape again, in order to make the point that it is problems at home that are causing her educational retardation. Does he honestly think we might have forgotten? As for the performances, Monique is genuinely and unsettlingly vile; the woman who plays the teacher is too dewy-eyed (she acts every scene as if she's internalised the mantra: beauty is within) but it is Maria Carey (above) who was the revelation for me. She doesn't get any big speeches, or even that many scenes, but the social worker she plays brings a wonderful, low-key curiousity to the film. I believed every second of her.

Oscar chances: nominations for best film, best adapted screenplay, best actress and best supporting actress, with a win in the latter for Monique. I have to say, though: this film scares me. It has all the right ingredients to be the Susan Boyle of the Oscars. The academy voters like nothing better than to catch themselves in a self-conscious act of charity.

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