ANNE MARIE FOX
When a filmmaker chooses to title his movie Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire, you know what qualities not to expect from him: concision, reticence, subtlety, allusiveness. You may also anticipate, correctly, a lack of excessive self-regard. Before you've even bought your ticket, producer-director Lee Daniels has disavowed any claim to have thought up his project's sensational premise. I will soon get around to praising him for this modesty, and for his film as a whole. First, though, I need to deal with the question he's raised about the relationship between the movie and its source.
Like Push before it, Precious purports to give voice to someone who is midway in status between a fictional character and a worst-case scenario: an illiterate, battered, obese, welfare-dependent 16-year-old girl in 1980s Harlem who at the start of the story is pregnant for the second time by her now-missing father. This is someone who can defiantly describe herself (in both the novel and the film's voiceover narration) as a loud-talking, gluttonous offense to middle-class white society: "Ugly black grease to be wipe away." The principal difference between the novel and the movie lies in the contrasting modes of irony they use to undo this hellish stereotype (which they themselves have called up) and affirm the character's humanity. The novel does this work by drawing attention to the gap between Claireece Precious Jones's inner world and her painfully limited powers of expression. (She is "in the ninfe grade" and has a daughter who "got Down Sinder.") The movie draws your attention to the gap between Precious's painfully limited circumstances and the extravagant means of expression at Daniels's command.
He does not merely suggest Precious's inner world. He makes it explode in full movie color against a jumpin' soundtrack. The dimly lit box of daily suffering splinters apart, and Precious, suddenly draped in leopard skin and blessed with good hair, will sweep ecstatically onto a red carpet. Or she will receive encouraging nods and winks from the animated pictures in her photo album; or look in the mirror and see that she's slim, pretty and blond; or literally become absorbed in the movie playing on TV--De Sica's Two Women, if I'm not mistaken--and begin speaking Italian in a black-and-white world.
In the novel, Precious describes such imaginative longings in her own words. This isn't to say that the author's voice and the narrator's are perfectly merged--the disguise is sometimes thin or inconsistent--but the match is close enough for novelistic convention. More important, language eventually becomes the medium for Precious's growing sense of self-worth--Push is the story of an education--so that circumstance, fantasy and aspiration are all made of one malleable substance. In the film, though, Daniels's set pieces split author from character, imagination from reality, in a way that cinematic convention does not entirely cover. Yes, these directorial flights wring pathos from Precious's pop-culture dreams, which abase her heart even while lifting it. But as parodies, they elicit, perhaps unavoidably, a slight condescension toward the entertainments of the recent past and the people who were suckers for them. As amusements for the audience, they remove the viewer temporarily (blessedly) from the overall oppressiveness of the character's life. Not least, as vehicles for performance, they give the remarkable young actress who plays Precious, Gabourey Sidibe, a few much-needed opportunities to show that she is not really this character.
Sidibe is a big woman--perhaps even bigger than the figure you might picture to yourself when reading Push--and comes onto the screen with the sort of shock effect that can be faked but in this case is not. You know the flesh is hers; and given the way she inhabits it in the early scenes, you can't help wondering whether she also might own the glare, the scowl, the rolling gait and the purposeful mumble. (It swallows both rage and shame.) Even if Sidibe's behavior is an act, it exposes something vulnerable in a real woman. Even if the woman signed on willingly for the exposure, she did so with almost as little power over her director as Precious has over the world. So the suspicion arises: in helping Daniels dramatize the humiliation of Precious, did Sidibe participate in her own?
The answer, delivered in the first fantasy sequence, comes with a mile-wide smile, a rolling wave of chin-to-toe dance moves and a note-perfect imitation of a starlet chirping into the microphones. Sidibe is rescued from the doom of first impressions--and given the way movies work, the character is rescued with her, even before the plot gets properly started and Precious begins her course of enlightenment in an alternative school.
This isn't to say that the film's pedagogical narrative could have been skipped. (If anything, it's almost too important to the movie, which takes care to instruct Precious in everything a well-intentioned audience would want her to learn, from the alphabet to tolerance toward lesbians.) Nor does the revelation of Sidibe's many-sidedness relieve the character from having to endure a singularly constricted life. (Although I've said a lot about the imaginative breaks in the film, your strongest memory might be of a gloomy, uterine apartment, lit solely by the TV set, where Precious is always within her mother's striking distance.) Reality grinds on, and grinds down, in Precious; and yet there's always a degree of play--in the sense of slack, as well as make-believe--in the way Sidibe both inhabits the character and escapes from her.
I think everything that's most admirable about Precious can be summed up in Daniels's treatment of Sidibe: how he keeps her safe and intact within a fully committed performance. This is more than kindness toward a novice who took on a risky role. It's part of a pattern in Daniels's approach, and evidence of his paradoxical modesty.
For a filmmaker with an excellent Rolodex and a taste for lurid subject matter--think of his producing Monster's Ball and recruiting Halle Berry for the lead--Daniels has a way of undoing his own flashiness by casting against the grain. In Precious, he chose a comedian, Mo'Nique, to play the vile, violent, horrendously damaged mother; a rock star, Lenny Kravitz, to be a sweetly patient maternity nurse (the only decent man in the film, and the only one with a real speaking part); and an international sex symbol, Mariah Carey (the shining tresses hidden beneath a shaggy dark wig, the renowned bosom dowdily concealed), to be the crusty welfare caseworker whose ethnicity is a puzzle to Precious. All of them are implicitly more than the roles they portray; but none of them venture even a single wink at the audience. So the celebrities are rendered unobtrusive, while the newcomer (the only one who gets to break character) is elevated to the level of the stars.
It takes humility for a director to stand back and let the endless possibilities of human character assert themselves; just as it takes humility to locate the heart of a novel and translate it from twisted, uncertain words into gestures, expressions and tones of voice. That's why, however much of Lee Daniels I see in this movie, I see more of the cast, the city, the period, the conditions. That's why, despite my chronic suspicion of social-realist freak shows and tales to inspire moral uplift, I recognize something I can trust in Precious.
Besides, it's devastating.