When I first began hearing about a film based on a book by someone named Sapphire, I felt the same twitch of skepticism that I always feel when learning about a one-named person. To make matters worse, I've got a lot of admiration for Oprah, but it's seemed to me for a long time that if she recommends a movie or a book, it will probably be the kind that makes me cry. I don't mind a good cry every now and then, but when I anticipate crying before a movie even starts, whether my anticipation is based on a review saying something along the lines of "it'll make you cry" or simply a DVD case that looks really depressing, I'm usually pretty annoyed. That being said, I cried watching "Precious," and I even forgot to google Sapphire's real name.
Director Lee Daniels has made a film that accomplishes something truly wonderful: Daniels manipulates the inherent limitations of film to make something that is penetrating and moving, and yet moves quickly enough to keep the viewer from being sucked into any one of the horrific moments in "Precious." When Precious', played with so much understatement and honesty by Gabourey Sidibe, is charged by her delusional and abusive mother (Mo'Nique), we see the chase up the stairs and we hear the fight, but then next we see the calm after the storm: Precious sits calmly looking at photographs on her bed while her mother watches TV.
The entire film, with but a few brief exceptions, is just like this. Daniels, at least in this film, seems to understand what Alfred Hitchcock knew so well: if you show people only the edges of violence and terror, the moment stays with them a lot longer. That makes Precious' courage in the face of her struggles all the more remarkable. Instead of focusing on the grisly details of incest, rape, and other physical abuse, Daniels shows us the reality if these things in Precious' life by focusing on what happens before and after. And the long and short of it is that Precious, like so many people who have such enormous obstacles to happiness in their lives, takes those heart-breaking moments and makes something of them.
The film does have it's drawbacks, however, namely the things that make it so successful. "Precious" takes on some pretty heavy subjects that so many people don't want to talk about, and one of the ways it presents those subjects to large audiences is to not dwell on them. And while Daniels' approach to violence and horror is effective and full of impact, it also makes the pacing of the narrative feel lopsided and uneven until you get used to it, and even then, sometimes I found myself wanting to keep crying but the scene had moved on, or wanting to savor the details of some beautiful cinematography when something mundane but nonetheless distracting happens.
"Precious," like all art, has its flaws, but it keeps coming back into my head, and I know that the next time I watch it I'll learn something new. That's the stamp of a good film.
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