With its tragedy-to-triumph trajectory, its no surprise that Lee Daniels’s much-admired Precious (2009) - based on Sapphire’s novel Push - comes to us bearing the Oprah Winfrey seal of approval. Sexual abuse, mother-daughter conflict, incest, teen pregnancy, AIDS, Down’s Syndrome, empowerment through journal-keeping; the movie is practically a dramatised Oprah show in itself. (The credits state that the move is “presented” by Winfrey and Tyler Perry. Is "presentation" the same thing as “promotion”, I wonder? It's a shame that Winfrey’s clout didn’t work for a much, much better movie than this one, Jonathan Demme’s under-seen Beloved .)
Though there are things to admire in Daniels’s film I found myself strangely resistant to Precious overall. The catalogue of traumas paraded for the viewer’s delectation rivals those in the histrionic first half of the Daniels-produced Monster’s Ball (2001), while the heroine’s eventual triumph - through the rather familiar routes of education, motherhood and sisterhood - is presented with what felt to me like a great deal of obviousness and fatuity. I liked some of the quirkier touches that Daniels inserts - a scene based around De Sica’s Two Women (1960) is really inspired - and you can’t but be moved by the acting, in particular the powerhouse duo of Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’Nique. Yet there’s a prurient tone to Precious that isn’t redeemed by its sentimental reliance upon conventional self-acceptance discourses scored to “uplifting” LaBelle tracks. The protagonist’s spelling-it-out voiceover doesn’t help either, since it leaves the viewer very little interpretive space. Precious's commentary editorialises on what we’re seeing, while important elements remain under-explored. We never really know how the character feels about the - now conveniently absent - father whose children she’s borne, and her attitude to those children turns out - conveniently, again - to be pure unadulterated mommy-love without the slightest trace of anger or even ambivalence.
It’s easy to see the appeal of the film’s inspirational message about redemption for the downtrodden; yet, churlish as it may sound to suggest it, perhaps that’s the real fantasy that's being sold here, and in somewhat predictable, melodramatic and clichéd terms. (A climactic sequence in which Precious decisively rejects her apparently repentant but still self-justifying monster-mother plays a little like those awful scenes in TV movies in which errant husbands return to their newly empowered wives only to be scornfully turned down by them.) Ultimately, then, the discomfort that Precious provokes isn’t just down to the subject matter that its dealing with; it has to do with the fact that, despite affecting moments and committed performances, you feel the movie’s manipulative gears grinding from its first frame to its last.