Like its main character – a perceptive young girl hidden beneath layer upon layer of malnourished corpulence and emotional barbed-wire fences – there is a fine, almost daring movie buried within the confines of director Lee Daniels’ shocking-at the-surface film Precious. During its journey from Sundance-sweeping indie darling to water-cooler Oscar potential, great lengths have been taken to tack on, and scrape away, levels of importance that only serve to raise suspicions about the picture’s pedigree. Start with the title: Once simply Push, it became Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire; then the novel’s name was scrapped, and now it’s taken on the shorthand Precious. Later, Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry attached their names as executive producers and, with that burden, instigated something of a backlash toward the film. Even the screenwriter, first-timer Geoffrey Fletcher, initially wrote the script under the pseudonym Damien Paul before changing it back to his real name.
Why can’t Precious just be? This above-the-line irresolution is symptomatic of the film itself, which, for all its pretense of starkness and poverty, is simply not very well-made. The plot concerns Precious (Gabourey Sidibe), an illiterate, severely obese junior-high girl who is pregnant by her father for the second time (the first resulted in a Down syndrome-afflicted child) and grotesquely abused by her mother (Mo’Nique, playing the villain with the relish of Daniel Day Lewis as Daniel Plainview or Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford). Precious is finally shuffled off to an alternative school for troubled children, and there’s not much more to the story than that; we’re meant to follow along as Precious struggles through her Sisyphean daily life, shaking our heads in disbelief and possibly feeling grateful that we’re not her.
Until the last act, which settles down considerably, Daniels flits about with cinematic ADHD: During the roughest parts of Precious’ life, Daniels cuts to fantasy sequences that don’t look nearly as glossy and smooth as Precious wants to imagine them (can the poor girl at least get a budget for her damned fantasies?), but those clips don’t extend beyond the first act. Daniels spends great amounts of time developing inconsequential characters that neither Precious nor we will see again (her public-school teacher, restaurant workers). And for all the socioeconomic questions Daniels either intended to raise with Precious or that have attached themselves to the film by proxy, the film makes no decisions on who it wants to demonize or deify; Daniels splits down the middle on everyone but Precious’ parents, a decision that isn’t even as brave as his main character.
As I mentioned at the start, it’s a shame that Daniels is so unconvincing in his execution, because the performances mostly go for broke and there does seem to be a nugget of courage to Fletcher’s screenplay. Precious herself could never be confused with an active participant in the film. Just like a real pregnant junior-high girl, she has no control over her surroundings and must rely on pure gut reaction, often meandering among circumstances, consciousness and will. In her daze we catch glimpses of the destitute black experience: social workers, exhausted teachers, liberal condescension, even the pseudospiritual promise of uplift that the film’s own execs, Winfrey and Perry, make fortunes touting. The script sees all this “support” through Precious’ incurious eyes, exposing it as ineffectual at best, predatory at worst. Tangled in so many agendas, she’s better off on her own, far from the grasp of her zealous helpers, who are well-meaning but remain inherently outsiders. (I can’t help but think of Winfrey’s frenzied hyping of the film’s social message and wonder if her attention might have been more useful in the editing room before the film’s release. Like Precious’ counselors, Winfrey can’t actually make the product any better, she can only improve its packaging.)
There is brutal commentary to be made here, but Daniels seems preoccupied. By the time Precious has her baby, surrounded by her newfound progressive, liberated friends, it looks like the director’s need to suffocate his girl with granola goodness has won out. But the script has a final, utterly existentialist trick up its sleeve for the finale that puts The Box’s freshman-level Huis Clos talk to shame. I found myself happy that Fletcher, Sidibe and Mo’Nique were able to squeeze in the moment that their work had earned, but a moment does not a great film make, and the blame for the failure of Precious lies squarely on the shoulders of its own champions.