Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The "Precious" Debate

Lee Daniels's auspiciously titled film, "Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire," sounds like a Lifetime Series Original Movie. It's about an obese, sexually abused, 16-year old black girl who's pregnant with her 2nd child and discovers she's HIV positive. It's not a happy movie.

It's full of misery and grim, distorted faces that contort like demons and ghouls. Its protagonist is uneducated, illiterate and has a hard time communicating - even in voiceover. It's a jagged, unpleasant experience that takes full use of jump cuts, cut ins, and abrupt jars between fantasy and reality to try and convey the mental space of its young central character.

As I watched "Precious," I admired its craft. I appreciated the care that Lee Daniels took in creating a film that feels both a part of a community and a nearly universal tale. The crushing weight of circumstance rings throughout. But then, so much of Precious IS crafted, is pushed and pulled and microanalyzed in a way that tries to SEEM seamless that I'm ultimately left wondering how the film wants us to respond, and whether it's right in the ways it wants us to think about the character and the environment.

Of course, this comes off as a necessarily "black story," a movie about African Americans who can't function in society. Precious, who is played with great depth and understanding by young Gabby Sabide (I feel she's destined for an Oscar nod), clashes with her tyrannical and ignorant mother (comedian Mo'Nique, here blown to terrifying proportions).

Spread over two hours, Daniels makes us feel the weight of the situation. His selection of shots is unforgiving, but I'm left wondering if he ever crosses his own line. Does his film really reflect a melding of naturalistic environment study and mental stream of consciousness? In many scenes, yes, but it's exasperated to a point of exhaustion.

Precious is deeply felt and dramatically infused with a real sense of humanity. It's also artfully constructed with a real understanding of how the medium can convey ideas. I guess I'm just simply too aware of the tricks it pulls. I respond emotionally to the film as I'm simultaneously forcing myself to create a distance to it.

Maybe that's what good art is? Using the tools available to create a response? Heavens knows "Precious" is creating that response in waves, and were I to evaluate the film from an emotional standpoint it would bowl me over. But I can't, because it's simply too well-made. Lee Daniels knows what he's doing at every step, which is a gift and a curse.

Either way, the film probably deserves a spotlight - it's taken the "inspirational urban movie," made it genuinely frightening and crushing, and infused some actual artistic insight, regardless of through what means or to what end.

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