“Precious” Quietly Succeeds

Rarely does one come across a more ironically named protagonist — and title, for that matter — than in Lee Daniels’ (producer of “Monster’s Ball”) heartfelt and achingly intimate “Precious.” The titular character lives between two abusive worlds: her home where her father raped and impregnated her, her mother verbally and pysically assaulting her for “stealing” his love; and school, where her obesity and quiet demeanor often lead to incessant mocking. But when a social worker and one of her teachers take a vested interest in Precious, the film makes a near impossible leap. “Precious” arcs from its deeply morose beginnings to an inspiring conclusion, dragging the audience along for the most emotional two hours of the year.

The film might have been a hideous melodramatic mess if the plot had been left to most other actors, but Daniels manages the best out of an unexpected female cast. Mo’nique, a comedian previously reserved for third-rate comedies like “Phat Girls,” takes on the monstrous personality of Precious’ mother and somehow manages to glimmer with amiability beneath the exterior. Mariah Carey (“Glitter”) also gives an astonishing turn as the subdued and empathetic social worker Mrs. Weiss.

The real strength of the film comes from the bare fragility of Gabourey (Gabby) Sidibe as Precious, who makes the silence surrounding many of her scenes vibrate with emotional intensity.

The stunning performances are all undeniably the result of Daniels’ direction, who takes most of the cast away from their star personas, invoking career-making characters. These performances should not be ignored by the Academy come next February.

This concern for the actors’ performance extends throughout the film’s mise en scene. The entirety of the production focuses on making itself simplistic and unobtrusive so as to mold with, but not interrupt, scenes of dialogue.

The lighting design is understated at best and seemingly non-existent at worst, making Precious’s home heavy with atmospheric, late-afternoon light. Meanwhile, the scenes at school are almost documentary-like in the heavy use of natural and florescent lights.

Special note must be paid to the way that Precious is lit throughout the film, as it is usually difficult to properly light an actress of such dark complexion in a Hollywood production. However, here Precious is cast in perfect luminescence, a minute but remarkable achievement even in modern cinema.

The film’s sound design makes excellent use of silence, both through character and otherwise; its sometime fractured appearances in the story hit an impressively high emotional impact.

Few films of such a raw, bleeding intimacy see release at all, let alone a wide release. The risk it takes to cast and direct such a film, all the while balancing the line between high drama and soap opera, is often too monumental in size for most production companies to take on.
In Daniels and his “Precious,” there exists a sparklingly rarity in Western cinema, an attention to the nuances of performance that is incredibly rare. While certain aspects of the film’s production take an understandable but still disappointing step into the background, there is little fault to be found in a film with such a strong emotional grip. So many moments in the film stab into your memory — and your heart — that it is an experience that simply must be seen. “Precious” is a trip back to the early days of method acting and meticulous direction, one which audiences can only hope more films will take, despite the risk.