It is interesting, what it takes for people to get moved to tears at a movie. For a lot of people I suppose, it will be sadness. For me, it is sadness yes, but moreover sacrifice – an operatic expression of good. I still becoming a blubbering idiot (on the inside – since I am a man of course) in the final passages of The Iron Giant when the robot turns to the boy and tells him “no following” as he heads off to save the town. The final reunion in The Shawshank Redemption, for completely unrelated reasons, moves me the same way – as did the opening sequence in Up. Simple, unrelenting sadness is usually not sufficient.
One of these sorts of emotional movements occurs towards the second half of Lee Daniels’ Precious, the much talked about and lauded audence winner at Sundance and Toronto. We have met Clarice “Precious” Jones, a large, sullen black seventeen year old eighth grader in Harlem, pregnant with her second child from a rape (by her father), illiterate with very, very low self esteem. She has been moved to an alternate school to try to get her reading and educational performance up to standard. We have been with her the entire way, as she starts to write and read – starts to have teachers and classmates who take some interest in her, to start thinking positively about escaping her home life (more on that) … and then one day she bursts. In as moving a monologue as I can remember, she lets it go, explains what happened to her and what she is afraid of – and it’s still a scene that stays with me.
Given that Oprah and Tyler Perry produced the film – I suppose the audiences are expected to be moved also by scenes of the hell on earth that Precious has to deal with at home. Really, the performance by Gabby Sidoube in the title role and Mo’nique as her wounded, broken, resentful mother – take incredible courage. Precious lives in a hopeless situation and (at least in the beginning) simply lacks the tools to dream further. Sidoube, creates a character in Precious that is so natural and unforced – so trapped inside herself (like a broken teenager would be) that you are surprised that this is in fact a performance, and not some sort of heightened sense of autobiography. Her mother has had her dreams shattered – and blames Precious for the circumstance – using both psychological and physical abuse with great effect. Mo’nique, especially with her charming BET comedienne persona – is downright frightening here. I can’t imagine how anyone would want to be seen in this light – even if she IS a victim. However, these scenes are not hanky inspiring for me – but they are jarring, and set the tone of the story extremely effectively. There is a lot of Oscar caliber work going on here.
Daniel also fills the edges with excellent unshowy performances. Mariah Carey has gotten a lot of pub for a fairly small role, but she is effective and it takes little time to accept her character. Lenny Kravitz as a male nurse is another, and Paula Patton as a teacher who cares for her is instrumental in showing Precious some possibility. The cast is photogenic in a sense, using these non-actors, but Daniel gets very natural, non self-conscious performances. They are all earning their keep.
The final thing to compliment Precious on is the ending. In a world where 9 out of 10 films end incorrectly – unnaturally, hollywoody, arbitrarily – Daniel (and Sapphire and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher) gets Precious to the finish line, the right finish line. The triumph (and certainly is Oprah was backing this – I hope you are not surprised) is earned, and fairly modest. Much like Boyz N’Da Hood or City of God, we start here with a protagonist in hell, with low odds of getting out. When she has her victory – through some benefactors, some well placed love and some dumb luck – it is not so much triumph as eligibility for triumph. I’m not sure if Precious will succeed – but she is at least in a place now where she can find out.