Precious: Young, Gifted and Fat

9 February 2010

Precious’ reliance on cliches prevents Raymond Li from giving it five stars

Precious – 1hr 49 mins, 15

4/5

It seems part of human nature to favour the underdog. This partly explains the success of producer Oprah Winfrey – her huge media profile ensured this film was destined to become a must-see feature in every critic’s diary. Precious is a powerful melodrama which tackles issues normally too depressing for Hollywood, such as domestic violence, incestuous abuse, self-loathing and social deprivation.

A lot of hype has been riding on this star-studded film; the supporting cast features a make-up free Mariah Carey and a barely recognisable Lenny Kravitz. The film has already won prizes at Toronto and Sundance and gained four Bafta nominations. Does it live up to the hype? Well, yes and no.

Precious is the name of the film’s long-suffering teen, who is disadvantaged in every way you can imagine. She cannot read, a shortcoming which her mother encourages so she can steal more welfare. Her abusive mother takes out her self-loathing on Precious for “letting” her rapist father impregnate her with two children. Hope emerges when Precious moves to an alternative school where she slowly builds up her confidence in a smaller class for other “special cases.”

There is no denying the outstanding performances from first-time performers Gabourey Sidibe (as Precious) and Mo’Nique as her abusive mother. Even Mariah Carey puts in a decent turn as the sympathetic social worker, excelling during a pivotal heart-to-heart between Precious and her mother near the end.

The film is uncompromising with Mo’Nique imposing an explosive presence. Her outbursts of violence were shocking enough to elicit loud gasps from the audience; in one scene she throws a blunt object at the back of her daughter’s head and, after an emotional standoff, she even launches a television set down at her daughter and granddaughter.

The film has to be praised for its courageous casting. Most underdog dramas tend to attract beautiful actors who are made up to be “ugly” (i.e. quite beautiful) – in the process winning the actor media plaudits for being so brave. For Sidibe, however, there is no prosthetic suit and the decision to bring in an unknown, rather than a blown-up Halle Berry, will be remembered fondly in the future.

However, the critics in the US may have gone too far with their praise. Apart from the performances, there isn’t anything else that’s screaming for an Oscar nomination. If the script cannot be faulted then director Lee Daniels can, particularly for the scenes when, at moments of abuse, Precious escapes into her own world, a bling-bling Wizard of Oz fantasy. This is shown by fast paced sequences of her living the glamorous lifestyle she yearns for. At times this works but, when her mother gives her the worst news of the film, it becomes awkward and the emotional impact is diluted.

Sadly the film is punctuated by some hackneyed moments. In Precious’s alternative school she is taught by a teacher who has the cheesy name of Blu Rain (Paula Patton). In clich├ęd fashion Rain overcomes the behavioural difficulties of her class by telling them to write down their feelings. Those with ASBOs take notes.

Moreover, Rain is glamorous, beautiful and even has light skin to throw further insult to injury. When Precious suffers a suicidal breakdown Ms. Rain tearfully begs her to write in front of the entire class. Those with clinical depression take notes.

The character of Blu Rain is revealed to be in a loving lesbian relationship, which is both surprising and incongruent. The only significance this has is when Precious concludes that while Rain and her partner may be unconventional, they’re a whole lot nicer than her mum. For an American audience this warm portrayal of gay parents could be important but it’s addressed in only thirty seconds of screen time. Additionally, Kravitz’s role is nothing more than a pointless cameo.

The film was begging for five stars, but the cliches let it down. Nevertheless it’s one you have to see, if only to put your life in perspective after yet another battering from your supervisor.

Precious is now showing at the Arts Picturehouse.