You would be forgiven for walking into Precious thinking you’re about to see your average uplifting rags-to-riches story. But the word ‘uplifting’ might not be one that immediately springs to mind after seeing this, and rags-to-riches does not at all suffice as a description. But more importantly, there is nothing average about this film.
Precious tells the story of 16-year old Claireece Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe). To say she has problems is a gross understatement. Severely overweight, a single mother, pregnant with her second child, she lives in Harlem with her violent and abusive mother (Mo’Nique). As if her present situation wasn’t bad enough, her past is one of abuse in all its hideous forms.
That’s a rather daunting set-up for any story. The filmmakers could easily have turned this overwhelming list into a teary-eyed melodrama. When Claireece is sent off to join a special education program with an inspiring young teacher you might think that this is exactly the path that the film will take. But it easily avoids that trap. The director, Lee Daniels, doesn’t pander to the audience. He doesn’t give you what you think you want to see, a happily-ever-after ending. Often, Claireece dreams of becoming a music star – it shouldn’t take you long to realise that’s not going to happen. Daniels hasn’t created a story so full of raw emotional power only to completely undermine it come the end. It’s not that kind of film.
Other directors may try to hide some of the harsh and brutal details of their heroine’s plight, but there’s no such capitulation to the audience’s sensitivities here. Daniels doesn’t dress-up the horrendous situations faced by Claireece by breaking out the violins. Indeed the lack of overwrought music is rather refreshing. He doesn’t use it to try and tell the audience how they’re supposed to feel, we’re left there to work things out for ourselves. Where you might expect some uplifting music to kick in, he holds back, letting us, or perhaps forcing us, to really watch and listen.
I said there was nothing average about this film, and nowhere is that more true than with the acting. Across the board it is utterly superb. In the lead role, Sidibe is never less than convincing, whilst playing her mother, Mo’Nique has managed to retain some humanity in a character that could otherwise so easily have been turned into a monster. Even Mariah Carey, playing a social worker, is entirely believable, producing a remarkably naturalistic performance. It’s little surprise that the awards have already starting rolling in for the cast.
If you leave the cinema feeling a bit confused, ‘was that a happy or a sad ending?’ then the director has done his job. This isn’t your standard tearjerker. Reducing a cinema audience to tears is easy, and so it’s often used as a quick and simple way of eliciting an emotional response from them. Any director can make an audience cry. A few can make them think.