There is nothing worse than child abuse of any kind – physical, psychological, sexual. It’s a demonstration of power perverted, of adults taking advantage of impressionable and vulnerable minors in the cruelest, most shocking way conceivable. For a long time, it was a hidden shame, the subject of hush-hush whispers across suburban fences and the occasional sensationalized nightly news broadcast. But sometime around the mid ’80s, the cause of exploited children everywhere gained a massive international profile. Today, we’ve gone to the opposite extremes, making the protection of kids our main social priority. No longer is the subject pushed back into the shadows of family scandal. Instead, it’s offered up as a kind of callous cautionary tale, a reason for mothers and fathers to stay ever vigilant – both of their own actions, and the unforgiveable acts of others.
So where does this leave a movie like Precious (actually entitled Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire)? Within its undeniably powerful narrative and bravura performances is something so dark, so literally unwatchable at times that the level of pain which our overweight teenage heroine endures seems worse than inhuman. It’s beyond Herculean and almost otherworldly in its terrifying truth. But this raises another, almost unthinkable issue. Why? Indeed, why does an audience have to sit through what ends up being nearly two hours of emotional and physiological torture for a final pronouncement that seems to do little except confirm the hopelessness of the situation? While amazing acting and concise direction can carry us past such problems, the overwhelming bleakness of being dragged through this character’s unfathomable torment leaves you feeling stained…and unsatisfied.
For the elephantine Clareece “Precious” Jones (a brilliant Gabourey Sidibe), life as a poor black adolescent is just awful. She is constantly mocked by her classmates and dismissed as stupid by her teachers. She is beaten and abused by her drug-addled mother (Mo’Nique, equally amazing) and systematically raped by her dad. When it is discovered that she is again pregnant by her nasty, no-account father (she already has a Down’s Syndrome afflicted baby with the man), she is sent to a special school for at-risk girls. Run by Ms. Blu Rain (Paula Patton), it’s the one place where Precious doesn’t feel marginalized. Instead, she begins to bond with the other students, and with her teacher’s help, she begins to find her own voice. Naturally, this does not sit well with her monstrous mom. When it looks like their welfare checks will be threatened, a city social worker named Mrs. Weiss (Mariah Carrey) steps in to try and help. Sadly, in a circumstance like this, there’s doesn’t seem to be any chance of a real rescue.
Now, if you were a jaded, cynical sort, you could easily accuse Precious of being the most manipulative, mean-spirited movie since a little independent atrocity known as Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door. In said sordid effort, the truth life tale of murderer Gertrude Baniszewski and the child she tortured and sexually scarred to death was given a high gloss fictional horror movie sheen, even with all its sick kiddie porn teasing and adolescent male fantasy facets. At its core, the tale of a young girl held in a basement for the sick, twisted pleasures of a psychotic old matron and boys who hang around her permissive household was all ignominy and no insight. Oddly enough, the same could be said here. Precious is a target for almost every media-minded shock author Sapphire and director Lee Daniels can come up with. It’s a mountain of mortifying acts that mandates the audience step up, strap in, and start climbing. There’s no denying that these things happen, but just because they exist doesn’t mean they make for satisfying cinema.
Indeed, the biggest problem facing any “outside” viewer of Precious is the unconscionable cruelty our lead must endure. She is raped, beaten systematically, verbally assaulted over and over again, and then forced to endure the mental – and medical – consequences of same. Not only that, she is frequently viewed as detached and lost in a world all her own, a special place where she is famous, beloved, and worshipped. Again, there is nothing wrong with such escapism, but Daniels doesn’t give us a reason to believe that anything good will come out of our time with these characters. He keeps teasing us with Mariah Carrey’s caseworker, but no matter how good the singer is at playing the part, Ms. Weiss seems strapped by the bureaucracy she’s a part of.
It’s this thread of abject bleakness and despair that clouds what is an otherwise stunning tour de force by all involved. Daniels never shies away from showing us the necessary abominations and he handles the few lighter moments with equal aplomb. It is not a visionary turn behind the lens, but it more than gets the job done. His actors, on the other hand, are all Oscar worthy. Of the bunch, Paula Patton is the least impressive as Ms. Blu Rain. It’s actually a rather thankless role (that of potential educational savior) that’s elevated by the ways in which the plot trips up her motives. Equally underwhelming, if in a good way, is rocker Lenny Kravitz as a kindly male nurse who gives Precious a reason to feel special. But it’s Miss Sidibe and the noted stand-up comic Mo’Nique who really shine here. Both deserve serious award consideration for how they handle what could have been stereotyped – or worse, clichéd – characters. Instead, they bring added dimension to material that often goes overboard.
It’s this very element, this desire to allow the bad from overpowering anything potentially good that makes Precious so difficult to endure. We keep wondering why anyone – real or fictional – would inflict so much harm on one human being and not give them a single moment of relief. Stories of abuse often contain facets of will and the struggle to survive. Here, we just get the everyday violence of life on the fringes. And then things turn even more depressing. While it won’t be a pleasant experience, or even an insightful or wholly satisfying one, Precious definitely deserves attention. It contains some of 2009’s best acting work and for all its unbearable agony, it does find a way to connect with the common experience. Just don’t be surprised if you come out feeling a little shell-shocked afterward. Most tragedies provide a final act of catharsis. All Precious has to offer is more and more malice.