At the New York Film Festival: Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire

10/03/2009 7:15 PM |


Lee Daniels’ Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, screens tonight at the New York Film Festival. Lionsgate will release it theatrically in November.

If Lee Daniels’ Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire is a sign of things to come for this year’s Oscar Bait season, abandon hope all ye who still have faith in middlebrow drama. Precious heralds a new kind of blaxploitation; in it, a black, illiterate Harlemite is abused at every turn, especially after-the-fact by director Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher. Both men waste no time in unleashing the film’s most bald-faced, openly manipulative scene: a rape, filmed with all of the fast-cutting, paucity of good taste and skeevy abstract imagery of sweat and grease familiar from any of the drug abuse scenes in Requiem for a Dream.

There’s no appreciable signs of humanity beyond Precious‘ empty artifice. On the one hand, Daniels announces his intentions to represent his heroine’s plight as realistically as he knows how—by filming most everything in a shaky, faux-doc style. On the other, the bulk of the film is also shot through the tapioca-like filter that David Fincher probably used in Alien 3, which is funny(-sad) because the movie’s just as much of an emotional black hole as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Fincher’s only serious hunk of Oscar Bait.

If any film really deserved to be flippantly dismissed as “poverty porn,” Precious is it. Gabourey Sidibe plays Clareece “Precious” Jones, a morbidly obese sixteen-year-old—living on welfare with Mary, her abusive mother (Mo’Nique, in her bid to be taken seriously for a moment, a la Queen Latifah)—who is now pregnant with her second child, sired by her absent father. Clareece is asked to leave school after her pregnancy is discovered but instead goes to a remedial school for other troubled minority kids looking to get their GEDs. Over the course of the film, Clareece will strive to overcome the utter despair of her station in life–I’ve left out the film’s clincher because, as the last good kick-in-the-gut the film delivers to the viewer, it’s a real doozy–by fantasizing about being famous while her mother taunts her, chucks things at her and inevitably brawls with her in slow-motion, before throwing a TV down a flight of stairs at her.

Those kinds of sloppy, vindictive soap opera theatrics just serve to reinforce the film’s hollow uplifting ending, in which Clareece walks away from her mother with her head held high. Which, again, is funny, considering that Daniels’ was one of the producers of The Woodsman, a rocky character study of a man that tries to live down the guilt of having raped a child. Here, however, after Mo’Nique delivers the teary-eyed speech pandering to Oscar voters’ sympathies—because over-emoting is a sign of real talent—only Clareece gets a chance at redemption. Daniels and Fletcher take every opportunity to reduce Clareece’s need to believe in herself to a cheap moral tale that freely judges Mary because it needs a villain in spite of whom its protagonist’s triumphs can be earned.

The furious jealousy that Mary has allowed to consume her is marginalized to that final maudlin speech, which comes too late for the viewer to think of her as a person. Somehow, watching her body-slam her daughter in slow motion has turned the viewer against her so completely that the possibility of forgiving her, within the context of the film, is unthinkable. That kind of empty-headed, sanctimonious claptrap wins awards. But it doesn’t earn them.