Monday, January 18, 2010

AFI Fest Volume 3: My Big Fat "Precious" Review

Precious(2009)Directed Lee Daniels
I know what your thinking, “Oh god another film about a 300 pound, black pregnant teenager, learning to read and struggling with years of emotional and sexual abuse. Do I have to?”. Maybe that was just me. I know this is actually not the type of story that get’s made into a film often (or ever), but I was still not thrilled to see this. I was quite content to wait to watch this on video or during a lazy day of channel surfing, but my mother wanted to see it. So adamant in fact that she was willing to wait hours in the Rush line, at this years AFI fest to get in to see it, at it’s Gala opening at the Grauman’s Chinese Theater. The film had been screened twice before, once at the Toronto Film Festival, and another time at Sundance, but with only a week til it’s national release, this was to be the big Hollywood coming out party.
Jonathan Rosenbaum once claimed that the only constructive thing for the betterment of cinema, the American Film Institute ever did was to help David Lynch make Eraserhead (which they were initially very resistant too), and I don’t know enough about them to argue the point, but I would have been open to believing it as true (after going over their canonical 100 greatest American films list), until this year, where AFI offered a free film festival to Los Angeles, and redeemed whatever past sins had been committed. The best thing about a free film festival, aside from the “free” part, is that it opens up the possibilities of attendance. I’ve been able to con, haggle, and outright lie to friends and family members to go see weird, foreign, independent, and unheard of films that have interested me in the past (usually at scattered locations across the city), but this year all I had to say was “free” and everyone was game, didn’t matter what the film was or who was “starring” in it.
Unfortunately of the 20 films I had signed up for I was only able to see 4, as if to revenge such a fortunate event, the universe conspired against me with lost wallets, cars breaking down, dying cell phones, and a host of problems blocking me from the festival. The free ways might as well have been moats surrounding a hidden fortress. Those films I did see though I saw with my family, either my brother or mother or both, which was as unusual as it was pleasant, to watch such diverse films with such a familiar group.
“Precious” is also the story of “family” but it is a very, very different one than we are used to. Family plays such a crucial role in films about the Black community; it’s almost alien to see one, where the immediate nuclear unit is a complete and utter failure. Even despairing “hood” movies like “Menace To Society” and “Boyz N The Hood” had inept and ignored, but positive adult figures in their households. “Precious” is not so lucky. We meet our heroin at age 16 one day in a high school Math class, where she excels, and crushes on her white teacher, until she is summoned to the principles office, and asked if she is pregnant…again? She admits that she is, but refuses to divulge the details any further. We learn almost immediately the reason for her silence being the father of both her babies is her Mother’s boyfriend, and her own biological father. He left them both as a result of the pregnancy’s and her mother hold’s her responsible, for “seducing my man”. Precious can’t continue at high-school, and is given the option of attending a GED equivalency program for “troubled girls” called Each One Teach One, or else her mother will lose the Welfare check she uses to support her life of sitting in front of the TV and punishing her daughter emotionally and physically, when not bribing her for sexual favors. Precious over-eats as a result of the stress, and is often forced to eat by her mother when not hungry. That is when she doesn’t forget to provide her child with food altogether, as it happens on other days. As truly horrible as much of her life is, it is sadly not the most tragic real life story I’ve ever heard. Once in a documentary class a girl nervously pitched us her sister’s story as a possible subject, and once she was done with the pitch, though we were all locked in intense stunned silence, we knew it could never work for the projects we had. We were supposed to make films between 5 and 10 minutes, and that time limit simply wouldn’t do service to the story being told, and might also be too painful a tale to expect anyone to recount/re-live, on camera. Somethings are just too terrible to be captured “authentically” without being exploitation, and though it runs the same risk, sometimes only a fiction will do for truth. Precious’ story is a work of fiction based on the only novel by poet Sapphire called Push”, a work of stream of consciousness, I’ve been told, that over the course of the novel uses more complex language and grammar as Precious goes from illiterate to literacy. Sapphire was at the premiere and was asked to the stage by director Lee Daniel’s as well as the cast and a few members of the crew, like late in the game producer’s Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, who according to Daniel’s came on board after the film had been heralded a success at Sundance. A film he says “No one in Hollywood wanted to touch…[and] that I imagined would be straight to DVD.”. I was initially suspicious of the film after hearing of Winfrey’s involvement and had all but decided not to see it when I heard Perry was connected. Precious is not the work of either Winfrey or Perry who lend their names to help increase the film’s availability and marketability (it’s where and why my Mother heard of the film and was so interested to see it) but the work of Sapphire, Lee Daniels, and a surprising cast of first timers actors and equally conflicting celebrities, comedians, and musicians. Mo Nique, a comedian who began her television career on UPN’s “The Parkers” and went on to a stand up/documentary about women’s prison called “I Could Have Been Your Cell Mate!”, hosting a beauty contest for plus sized women called “Mo’Nique’s Fat Chance”, and hosting the only of her shows I’ve seen and the one I found personally despicable “Flavor Of Love’s Charm School”, now hosts a late night talk show on BET, and despite my reservations delivers an impressive performance as Precious’s mother, that is easily, to use the contemptible phrase, Oscar worthy. Were Mo’Nique only a raving, tyrant hurling invective the performance would be only a dance of shrill hysterics like Halle Berry’s in “Monster’s Ball” (which director Daniel's produced), but by the final scene she makes her abominable character uncomfortably sympathetic, and sharply augments easy designations of “villaness” which she earns in early scenes. When asked how she was able to transmit this nuance into her abusive and abrasive character after so many comic roles, she revealed in a particularly candid interview that she herself was sexually abused growing up, and felt she “understood that personality well”. Tragically it makes for a better performance, the drained trembling expressions she wears, smacks of authenticity; that rarest of elements found in a melodrama. Another less impressive, but startling transformation is from Mariah Carey who when she appeared on stage before the film, I remembered thinking, “how are they going to slip a bombshell amidst non-actors…this is some gonna be some wacky shit”. While watching the film I couldn’t find her, and even asked someone afterwards why she was on stage if she wasn’t in the movie. Well she was in the movie, but I just literally couldn’t recognize her. Questlove of The Roots commented on Carey’s comments about her ugliness in the film saying “Mariah Carey slow the breaks on the Precious press saying how “ugly” you were made to look. 1) your character was not ugly 2) what about your fans that aren’t “cosmopolitan covershoot ready” that look like that character. i *know* you meant no harm but that’s a risky thin line you walkin'”. An especially risky line, for a film about learning to accept your own self image. Lenny Kravitz has a small role as a male nurse, and The View’s Sharri Sheppard has a small role as a receptionist at the Each One Teach One School, both minor but I imagine helpful roles, in pulling much needed financial capital for the production.
Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter” is a miracle of melodrama, where incest and a bus full of kids (make it nuns’ and it seems a tasteless joke) careening into a frozen lake is made emotionally and intellectually palpable without becoming exploitative. It manages this feat, because the story doesn’t just wallow in tragedy, but goes further to showing us how tragedy is made consumable by putting a price on it. If mental anguish has an objective value, than it’s a commodity like any other and truly a matter for the courts. The film is also successful because it uses a large ensemble cast, to let us glimpse important fragments of information, which we have to form together ourselves. Precious is not quite as successful, but it is also a very different film. Instead of a town in crisis, it takes us into the life and mind of a single character, fantasies, fears, memories, and all. We are rarely allowed the courtesy of pulling away from the heroin, but pushed deeper and deeper into her world of embarrassment, resentment, and fear. Precious fantasies of being a celebrity, a diva, and an actress with a life of fancy dresses, flashing lights, and “a perfect light-skinned boyfriend” on her arms, recall “The Tracey Fragments”. Scenes were Precious stares into her mirror and sees a thin, blue eyed, blond girl staring back at her, sound more ostentatious than they actually end up on delivery, and cleverly turn a complex personal, racial, and social idea into a simple, understated visual image that anyone could understand, without a didactic point of Spike Lee monologue.
Like The Sweet Hereafter instead of just wallowing in its own tragedy, it connects its plight to the outside world, how such abuse is empowered by a lack of language. Though it will probably be remembered as the movie about sexual abuse, it’s also about literacy and the power of communication. If Precious continues at school, she could potentially as she does learn that her life is not only not normal, but a suffocating, toxic, and if she does not leave soon, lethal environment. At one point in the film when she would be justified in giving up on life completely, her teacher demands she “write it out”. The best possible advice she could give. I’m now mildly dyslexic but I struggled from k-3rd grade, seriously considering giving up on education completely (as a 2nd grader), but didn’t because a patient teacher made sure I had extra assistance during lunch, recess, and after school. A year later she had me reading Shakespeare, and I couldn’t imagine even a day going by I don’t do some reading or writing. If it comes easy for you, it’s just second nature, but if you struggle with language, wrestling word for word and letter for letter, it informs the way you view communication and the importance of transferring knowledge. Essential to the “hope”, and “redemption” scrawled across billboards, is a sense of material skill, one born of repetition and practice, not sentimentality. Precious is a well acted, disturbingly plotted, difficult film to watch, but like the Lee Daniel’s produced “The Woodsman” it balances it’s potentially murky subject with honesty and somber humanism. I don’t consider the ending to be particularly happy. It is a vindication of sorts, but one more for an audience than for our heroin who has a deck stacked so high against her at the end, nothing save Roland Emmerich act of God would qualify as triumphant. In fact the end was almost a sucker punch, leading you toward one victory, only to expose a larger and longer defeat at an unexpected angle. It’s not an end, but it is a sense of closure. I’m curious to see what Daniel’s will make after this film, which had all the trimmings of Oscar Jail-bait with none of the trappings I’d come to expect; a precious rarity.

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