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Precious - film review

Updated on February 23, 2010

Synposis: A teenager in 1980s Harlem escapes her life of abuse and educational struggle

Precious is a case in showing that some film synopses are inaccurate and one even wonders if the writers have seen the film. The Picturehouse brochures - a 16 cinema UK arthouse chain - say that Mariah Carey's character Miss Weiss rescues Precious from her life of bullying, illiteracy and abuse by putting her into an alternative school. Not true - it is Precious' head teacher who does this. We don’t meet Mariah for some time after precious has begun at the new education program, and it is her new teacher, Blue Rain (Paula Patton) who is most instrumental in turning Precious' life around. The Picturehouses brochures say that precious is safe at 'Each One Teach One' and no longer bullied, but her classmates are a mixed blessing, giggling over her bloodied baby and calling Precious 'fat'. And she didn’t seem bullied a her first school - she is seen lashing out at students; and as he says in the novel, her size makes people affraid of her. The only time she is bullied by her peers is on the street.

That word reminds one of the appalling Independent review, available in the Picturehouse cinema I saw this in. It is appalling both in terms of the quality of its writing and comments about Precious. Anyone using the term 'morbidly obese' should have to go on a compulsory social programming course. this is the only comment I wish to make on the subject - that actress Gabourey Sidibe really is that size, and I applaud that neither her character or herself have slimmed as a result of success on or off screen. She looked stunning in the awards ceremonies and photo shoots.

When I worked for the Department of Social Security, and others I knew were in social services, I was asked what the difference was. My reply:

They care, we don't.

- though I did.

Mariah Carey's much celebrated social worker role in Precious is closer to welfare than social worker. Her role is small and is not all positive; other supporting roles captured me more. Miss Weiss has plans to get Precious into poorly paid work that she doesn't enjoy and that would give her little time with her children, and stop the education Precious is progressing with. Miss Wiess' manner is: you'd better tell me your stuff if you want money out of me. She's in an office which appears open plan for Precious to share her abuse and other very personal and difficult experiences. When Precious reveals her father is also her child's father, Miss Weiss makes her repeat it more than once in the tone of a benefit fraud officer, not a any form of caring professional.

When Mary, Precious' mother, comes into the social work office, she says to Miss Weiss, 'I don’t like the way you're looking at me'. I didn't like that look either. Mary too has problems, and it is a huge step for her to confess all that has happened. Miss Weiss does say that she likes Precious, but Blue Rain says that she loves her. Blue Rain spends a morning of her teaching time making calls to ensure that precious has a home, and when one is not found immediately, she takes Precious to hers. Blue Rain is inspiring. She cries with precious; she keeps her going. Although Blue Rain at one point tells Precious that her children should be adopted so she can have an education, she seems to accept that precious wants to keep them both and come back to class.

The ending is a little sudden and sad. I had hoped for reconciliation with the abusive mother, and perhaps to see Grandma again. Although precious walks out into the world now with both her children, we do not know if she even has legal guardianship and how she will manage to bring up two kids, one with special needs, and get her education and find work she will like. She has walked out of her mother's life - and her social worker has literally held up her hands and shown she will have nothing to do with Precious' mother either. Precious is free, triumphant, but alone; and we're not really sure how she's going to manage. I feel we leave her too soon. The book doesn’t really have a narrative end, but it doesn’t cut Mary out of Precious' life as the film does, and the sharing off all the classes' journals was a good way to finish.

The film didn’t have the power I expected. I had braced myself to be harrowed and deeply tearful, but I was not. I was also glad of the humour. I loved when one of the girls shouts 'slut' in class ' and another says 'let's explore that,' mimicking the style of teaching and counselling they receive. Similarly, I was amused when Precious asks Miss Weiss about her life as if she were a therapist, and blurts out: 'what colour are you?'

Although there's documentary style hand held camera, it is used sparingly at difficult meetings, such as the early one where Precious is called into the principal's office and asked if she is pregnant - again. The music keeps it upbeat and not feeling like a Dogme film. I had read in a local paper's review that the film pushes its 15 cert boundaries and that the abuse is hard to take. We do see a little of her father raping Precious, but that has a kind of quirkiness and then goes into the fantasy world of precious so we know how she deals with the ordeal: she imagines herself as a star. There are never details, even when Mary reveals that the abuse of Precious started at age 3 - and in front of her. I wonder again if the reviewer had seen the film, and just made assumptions from the book and press releases? for the details are shocking in the novel Push, styled very reminiscent of The Colour Purple (to which Push alludes). The abuse by the mother in the film is verbal and physical - the - but not sexual, as in the novel.

What we do have of Mary's treatment of Precious in the film is horrific enough. On top of telling Precious she should have been aborted as she's no use and is not wanted, Mary throws a TV down the stairs at her daughter and newborn granddaughter. Yet Mary is not all villain, and by the end, I felt sorry for her. Why was she so cruel to Precious? Because of the rejection that her lover chose her daughter over her. But why did he do that? We see little of him, only learning of his death by AIDS later and seeing him through a flashback.

This piece becomes like the one I wrote on The Reader (on Cinemaroll) in that it becomes a discussion on the moral issues raised. if holocaust is one of the most shocking occurences, the other is domestic abuse, particularly on children.

And how do we deal with people who intend to be on a life of benefits, as politicians are so keen to do, with their new deals in Britain?

What should have been the response to Precious' mother and her boyfriend, Carl?

It would seem that for any healthy person, it begins with revulsion at their acts. I cannot excuse what they did, whatever their own hurts. Mary and Carl must take responsibility for what they did and allow themselves to feel the horror of it and know what damage it caused, and how unacceptable that behaviour is.

It is clear that they too need mending. Mary leaves that social work office broken - now without grandchildren or her daughter. Her partner seems to have left her, we don’t know why, but he has also died so that she only has her near silent Mum as any company. She is normally afraid to go out and keeps out the sunlight, but the TV on. Is there some fear that constant television is a symptom of or shuts out? The welfare system exhorts her to work, yet just any job is not a life for Mary. It keeps her out of the government purse and off their stats but doesn’t give her a life. She has learned to play the system - when the welfare lady comes round, she puts on her wig and lippie and addresses the welfare lady with politeness, looking real sincere that she has got the same negative response from all the jobs she applied for. But if she wasn't lying - what would be different?

The stand up storm out moment of eureka and freeing of an enemy is too simplistic and developmentally immature for a complicated film like this. Some kind of hope for mother and daughter would have made this a far better film and the lack of it keeps this from being five stars.

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