By Chase Kahn
I wasn't sure what to expect from Lee Daniels' Precious, the current front-runner for a 2009 Best Picture Oscar and a box-office smash, but it wasn't the film I was expecting it to be. It's surprisingly unaffecting and even subdued in certain areas, dispelling notions that the film is overly manipulative or melodramatic.
What I wasn't caught off-guard by however, was the over-directing by Lee Daniels, especially in the first half, which consists of the introduction of the school and domestic life of Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) and her tight-lipped, abusive loose-cannon of a mother -- played by the excellent Mo'Nique in what will be a Oscar-winning role come March, barring a late newcomer to the party in the coming months.
Here, Daniels, in-between mother-daughter fisticuffs and verbal undressings of increasing violence, decides to interject fantasy montages, gospel tracks, and still photographs into the scenes about as seamlessly as Rich Rodriguez taking over at Michigan. These scenes lose their vivacity and impact with Daniels' finagling and audience pandering, never letting this terrific cast operate on its own. Instead of a neo-realist effort with minimal hoopla and cinematic coating, we get a film that simply tries too hard when it shouldn't, lessening the overall impact.
I object to outcries of racial stereotyping by a small, vocal, minority -- spearheaded by New York Press curmudgeon and African-American critic Armond White in his 11.04 review -- but Precious does offer just a sliver of "opportunism and exploitation," as he describes, although I can't agree with much else.
I also had a problem with Paula Patton's radiating mediator character, Ms. Rain, who teaches a small alternative education class and immediately is drawn into Precious' story and exudes all manners of decency and maternal hospitality comparatively absent at home. Although Ms. Rain, with her slim figure, glowing smile and clean-cut clothes, is hopelessly artificial. To expose Daniels further, he washes a certain shot out in a glowing light as if a descent into heavenly waters when our title character walks into Ms. Rain's classroom for the first time.
I will give the film credit for not completely selling Precious as a holy, Jesus-like wanderer of the Harlem ghettos. During the opening hour or so, where I was all to ready to dismiss the film, it depicts several scenes of indecent behavior. Precious steals food from a local diner, gets into fights and hurls obscenities just enough to buy into her character as a real-life portrait. Of course, it also helps that Gabourey Sidibe, in her first film role, is very true-to-life.
A film like Precious will undoubtedly garner audience sympathies and hearts alike, as it already has. I just don't think it's terribly convincing in its cause and is too showy without any cause for its actions. Director Lee Daniels, who produced Monster's Ball in 2001 and the murky Tennessee (which starred Precious co-star Mariah Carey) last year, has simply fallen into perfect situation. He hit on a few actresses, namely Sidibe and Mo'Nique, and futzed together the rest with half-hearted originality and inventiveness. This is the work of a man who isn't entirely sure of himself and for some reason, is reaping the benefits.