You really have to wonder what it is that attracts Oprah Winfrey to a movie. Based upon those that she has campaigned for, including The Colour Purple, Beloved and now Precious, it’s evidently to both pioneer great African American writing and simultaneously shoot herself in the foot by showing the worst elements of the same culture. Both of the former discuss slavery and a love of family and Africa itself so at least their some comfort and variance in the fact that in this Lee Daniel’s directed piece, their very absence being the theme throughout.
Set in 1987 Harlem, we are introduced to 16 year old Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), the product of an emotionally abuse and unstable mother Mary (Mo’nique) and an absentee father. Precious’ mother hates her for the fact that she is now pregnant with her second child by her father, believing that she stole him unfairly and in the process, robbing her of her only chance at love. No longer able to attend her regular school, she is set to an alternative learning centre, where Ms. Rain (Paula Patton) attempts to rebuild her self-esteem and help her pass her G.E.D exam. A concerned social worker, Ms. Weiss (Mariah Carey) and nurse, John McFadden (Lenny Kravitz) complete the trio of real life fairy godmothers.
I have to give some respect to Daniels for his belief in portraying the violence and abuse with as little fanfare as possible and in a way that always seems real, but its simple inclusion does not remove the need for a workable story and this is where the issues start to arise. As if to cover the fact that characters are left undeveloped, we watch the central character be constantly subject to one act after another, which in itself becomes grating by the half way mark. More than that, as if it were an act of placation, we’re occasionally given tidbits about the characters, as if it compensates for knowing little else about them. The juxtaposition of Precious’ fantasy world versus her every day life is an interesting device, but the length of time devoted to these segments and their inherent fantastical nature can often feel like we taped over the middle of ‘Schindler’s List’ with an episode of ‘Fame’.
Restraint is one of the largest holes within the piece, meaning that to maintain a reasonable running time that we do not get to invest in these characters simply because of the way they are written, the actors populating this world are required to work overtime to create the same effect. Sidibe and Mo’nique are wonderful in their respective roles and do the best that they can, as does everyone within their alloted scenes. Sadly no amount of ‘dirtying them up’ in an attempt to humanize them can truly make up for what should have been given to them before the cameras roled. Carey as Ms. Weiss is admirable and could have been a highlight of the film if it were not the writing limiting her. Even where she has the ability to confront Mary, she walks away, the writer (Geoffrey S. Fletcher) obviously unable to think of a more fitting ending. As a result, the lasting memory I’ll have of her performance being that she allowed herself to be filmed with a hairy lip. Even Mary, Precious’ mother is so shoehorned into her role, never developing past the stock role she fulfills, parroting the same lines with which she entered. Every ounce of emotion infused within the character results in her appearing alarmingly unstable, more than worthy of empathy.
Despite these issues, the acting is some of the best I’ve seen this year, but the project as a whole is nothing more than average in execution. A certain degree of restraint in its violent nature and more time given to character development could have elevated this to being one of the greats.