Precious (2009, Lee Daniels)

Claireece Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is a black, overweight 16-year-old. She has a child with Down syndrome (called Mongo) and another on the way as a result of her father raping her. She lives with her mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), who abuses her physically and mentally seemingly for sport. Oh, and she’s illiterate. It is no wonder this received a deluge of nominations at the Oscars five-years ago.

Precious is a fine example of the need to separate between content and execution. Lee Daniels handles harrowing material manipulatively, as if tackling such topics and shining a light on things like race and the indomitable human spirit is enough. It is quite an achievement in itself to take the information in the first paragraph and have the film feeling cold and distant.

This is because Precious lacks any subtlety or nuance. The world Precious and everybody else inhabits is (if you will excuse the pun) extremely black and white. The characters fall into two camps: very good or very bad. There is no room for greyer areas in between.

So feeling anything for Precious is difficult because she is an overblown caricature living under the thumb of a pantomime villain. Precious’s characterisation even leans dangerously into racist territory, for instance, in one scene she steals a bucket of fried chicken from a fast-food restaurant. I can only assume in her haste to make a quick getaway she did not have time to steal some watermelon and Kool-Aid, too.

The film frequently has Precious retreating into a fantasy world where she is accepted and loved a la Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. Both films share a lot similarities but Trier’s film is an example of how to do torment effectively. The main character in Dancer in the Dark is a complex human being surrounded by other well rounded characters. The fantasy non-sequiturs, like everything else in Precious, feel maudlin and hammy.

To give the film some credit, the performances from the main cast are strong – Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’Nique do their best with a terrible script and a ragged looking Mariah Carey turns in a surprisingly effective performance as Precious’s near literal white knight, Ms. Weiss.

From the manipulative misery porn to the atrocious editing and over-saturated cinematography, Precious is a dreadful, self-congratulatory work. (2)

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