Looking, and not looking in Lee Daniels’ PRECIOUS

Lee Daniels wants you to look. He wants you to look at the horrific abuse in the personal history of his protagonist, Precious Jones. As an audience member, I wanted to look too. In fact, I think one reason people have flocked to this film involves the extremely human desire to stare in the face what is most repulsive, most sick and most grotesque – about as bad as you can imagine it — in human domestic familial life. And he’s got it here – it’s a home-based horror show.

But Lee Daniels also conspires so that you may not look. Oddly, and a little unnervingly, at a few points in the film Daniels actually takes the act of looking away.

Let’s start with Precious’ relationship with her social worker, played (very well) by Mariah Carey. Daniels is already inverting our desire to look here, by presenting one of the most glamorous pop stars around, always gorgeous, in the most ordinary hair and make-up he could muster. Wanting to look at Mariah is now based on something different, the desire to see just how “normal” she can look. But another curious structural conceit in the film is that this key relationship, between client and counselor, is only shown in the very beginning and the very end of the film. The end interaction implies a relationship (meaning Precious and Mariah have been meeting for the whole film’s story-time duration), but we’ve seen none of it. The effect? I have to say it – narrative dissatisfaction. I want to reap the emotional benefits of being inside their conversations, but I only have bookends.

There are also a few moments in the film in which the framing does not allow for adequate viewing … and for particular images that seems critical. When Precious is pushed down by some bullies on her block, she deflects the experience by immediately heading headlong into a fantasy … of a cute boy kissing her adoringly, that is, until reality reveals she’s face down on the pavement, being licked by a mangy white dog. Except that we can’t see the dog. He’s on the edge of the frame, and hidden by Precious.

When another key story point develops, Precious writes something in her journal that is critical in revealing how she feels. But the camera? Frames her writing in a way that it’s possible to miss it. Lastly, frustratingly, the end titles are barely legible. Why? Because they are barely on screen, fade too fast, and are tiny! In all of these scenarios — why is Daniels not allowing me to look? Do all of the intense opportunities to look, in the face of incest, verbal and physical abuse, and  disease, make me want to pull back on other opportunities to see? I don’t think so.

Daniels has always been the bad boy; wanting to explore taboo, break the rules, go where nobody has gone. I respect that, absolutely. And much of PRECIOUS is very effective; absolutely worth seeing. But the rule that movies are visual and one should be able to see the elements? Follow, please. See the PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL PUSH BY SAPPHIRE, trailer here: