Left Behind
by Andrew Chan

Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
Dir. Lee Daniels, U.S., Lions Gate

Four years ago, in one of its most notorious episodes, The Tyra Banks Show found its host on a mission to enlighten her audience on the issue of anti-obese bigotry. America’s top model did so by placing the burden upon herself, taking her fat-suit to the streets, onto buses, and into blind dates—and arriving at the conclusion that she had hit upon “the last form of open discrimination that’s O.K.” The idea of the show was for Tyra to heroically assert the dignity of a marginalized group, but her histrionic response to a few hours walking around in disguise only led us down the familiar paths of sensationalism. Director Lee Daniels’s second film, Sundance favorite Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, brings this daytime-TV construction of the ultimate oppressed subject to the big screen, and again the purpose is a universal, self-ennobling empathy. As the film asks us to dream ourselves into the skin of society’s least-loved (here, a 300-pound, illiterate black teenager named Precious, who lives on welfare with her abusive mother), we are encouraged to project our own struggles onto her victimization: as the film’s website address informs us, “We are all Precious.”

Like Tyra and Oprah (who serves as executive producer on the film), Lee Daniels shares the talk-show method of illuminating the problems of society through titillating case studies. His first feature as a director, Shadowboxer, played on our expectations and fantasies, using the crime genre merely to frame a crude inquiry into the prejudices that attach to different body types. Pairing off Helen Mirren with Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Mo’Nique with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the film stared the incredulous viewer down, asking “Why not?” There wasn’t much more to the story than the shock of seemingly incompatible cast members thrown into sexual relationships with each other. Precious takes on the same subject of the human body and its experience of shame, but quickly resolves our discomfort with the gospel of self-love. Just as it visualizes Precious’s dreams of being a star, the film honors our desire for contact with an abject other, against whom we can test our own mettle and affirm our relative privilege. But where Shadowboxer jolted us into the strangeness of physical difference, Precious seeks to normalize, and never bothers to inhabit its heroine’s humiliation. As on Oprah, the lesson is ready to be had: we reap the inspiration of Precious’s empowerment without going through the fire.

Part of this may be an issue of adaptation. The film’s source material, Sapphire’s much-hyped novel from 1996, is a rough piece of literary craft, but it puts readers through the wringer. Written in the barely grammatical language of the illiterate protagonist, the book is a constant struggle for expression, and the reader is forced to work almost as hard as Precious in gaining access to her emotional world. Translating this into a relatively conventional style, Daniels has no way of replicating the authority of that first-person speaker, and when he tries by having actress Gabourney Sidibe narrate on the voice-over, there is no sense of her wrestling with language. The film has inevitably opened the book up, locating the action outside of Precious’s psyche, and thereby reducing our intimacy with her. Unfortunately, aside from a charming cameo by Lenny Kravitz as a nurse, the guardian angels that come Precious’s way are only as fleshed-out as they were in the highly elliptical novel, and their one-dimensionality as characters further minimizes the drama of this lost soul’s redemption. Perhaps the only thing Daniels has successfully done to expand upon the book and to ensure that we feel some of the desperateness of Precious’s situation is his conception of the home she shares with her mother (Mo’Nique) in Harlem. With its garish wallpaper, pools of saturated light, and bacon grease crackling in the kitchen, it’s a musty closet of a place that almost looks like a stage set, highlighting the often outrageous theatricality of what occurs within it and the nightmarish space it occupies in Precious’s mind.

A film that gets righteous about its social awareness, in the tradition of Gentleman’s Agreement and Crash, is bound to face its share of skepticism. There are those who will moan and groan about the difficulty of sitting through an aggressive social-issues film, and leave unmentioned the inexplicable, sometimes confusing nature of its pleasures. Precious is in some sense a failure, but it manages to be an exciting showcase for its actors, most whom are not known for their ability to carry dramatic material. As always, one of the most entertaining aspects of this brand of in-your-face cinema is the style of acting it engenders, the mix of wild gesticulation and indignant soliloquizing that tends to dominate Oscar clip reels. Though much mocked by aesthetes who prefer subtlety, these performances (or just the most over-the-top moments within them) are their own art: when masterfully executed, they can achieve an idealized, deceptively controlled display of uncontrollable emotion. In Precious’s penultimate scene, Mo’Nique—as Precious’s mother, Mary—delivers a powerful example of such a moment, one that easily upstages the rest of the film and offers a moral turning point. Demanding a reunion with her daughter and grandchild, Mary comes to visit Precious at the social worker’s office, where she is confronted about the sexual abuse she has allowed to occur in her household. Her face contorts into a grimace, her hands fidgeting in her lap, her head tilted high in defense against judgment. Her dialogue vacillates violently (sometimes hilariously) between soft-voiced decorum and hate-filled cursing. Then, finally, she dissolves into a whimper.

Daniels gives Mo’Nique’s monologue plenty of space to unfold, and the confessional words he puts in her mouth come out almost involuntarily, as if they were too horrific to be contained. Even though we have already guessed the extent of Precious’s lifelong abuse, the whole truth pours out of this final speech as if it were meant to be a shocking plot twist or the punch line to a disgusting joke. Mo’Nique grabs hold of this show-stopping opportunity without hesitation, and leaves her character so exposed that even her blood-curdling sneer starts plucking away at our heartstrings. And yet the film’s one unforgettable moment is also indicative of its most fundamental flaw. Daniels, drawn to spectacles of abjection and cruelty, is in constant need of a monster to humanize. This is the one trick upon which his entire career is based, and since Precious has already come to us with a built-in pull on our sympathies, his interest in her quickly reaches its limit. At the film’s climax, when Daniels latches onto Mary as the character through whom he can flaunt his capacity for compassion, we realize that he would have rather made a film from the point-of-view of an abuser—a thematic cousin to the 2004 film The Woodsman, which he produced, about a child molester. His fascination with how human weakness turns into evil is so evident that it highlights a lack of attention to what is ostensibly the film’s central concern: how a 16-year-old incest survivor seizes upon her own salvation. As Precious walks out of the social worker’s office, and then out of the frame, she seems to be leaving behind a film that has lost interest in her—one that has proven unworthy of her.