So I finally saw "Precious: Based On the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," which has become this year's movie that people judge you as a person based on your opinion of it (see also: "Life is Beautiful.") You're either moved-to-life-altering-tears by director Lee Daniels' presentation of an illiterate, morbidly-obese teenager (Gabourey Sidibe) gradually dragging herself out of a nightmarishly-abusive home life with help from friends, teachers and social-workers in 1987 Harlem; or you're a heartless bastard who's either "trying" to dislike it or you just can't take the heat.
Honestly? I'm torn: What you've heard about the acting is true - Sidibe is a revelation, Mo'nique comes close to very nearly eradicating bad memories of... well, pretty much everythign she's ever done anywhere ever (seriously.. was she EVER good in ANYTHING before this?) and somehow Daniels defies all known laws of nature and wrenches a great turn out of Mariah Carey. Maybe Daniels in the wrong profession: He should be an acting coach, exclusively assigned to actresses who've previously failed to demonstrate anything resembling ability (he also produced the Halle Berry Oscar-victory piece "Monster's Ball.)
What he probably SHOULDN'T be doing is directing entire films, because everything in "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" ranges from uninspiring to laughably bad. Problem numero-uno is the actual story - once you get past the sheer SCALE of the abuses heaped on Precious (you can practically hear the carnival barker: "Incest! Force-feeding! Baby tossing!") it's difficult to ignore that it's not much more than a grimier, nastier Lifetime movie; right down to Paula Patton's (to be fair, very well-acted) walking-cliche role as the saintly Alternative School teacher who takes it upon herself to rescue Precious.
More problematically, Daniels injects some fantasy/dream sequences, ostensibly representing Precious introverted escape whenever things get too intense, that play-out like bad comedy. He also indulges in ham-fisted irony, as when Precious looks at herself in a mirror and sees a blonde caucasian model instead (gee, do you think that reflection will look different by Act 3??) and a shockingly trite bit where the world-opening effects of education on Precious are visualized by spinning the camera around her and projecting a "great moments of the 20th Century" news-clip assembly onto the walls - an easy contender opposite "New Moon's" seasonal-transition bit as the year's worst use of montage. And don't get me started on the film-school-look-at-me moment where Precious imagines herself and her mother inhabiting a scene from Vittorio De Sica's "Two Women." The hell!?
There's also a few bits where the film seems (perhaps inadvertently, so just be clear I'm suggesting incompetence and not malice) to join it's villains in making fun of Precious: Moments of condescension like Precious' voice-over opining of "they talk like people on TV shows I don't watch" while sitting-in on political chatter between Patton and her partner (why does she know what it sounds like, then?) and did it really require the scene where Precious steals a bucket of fried chicken and devours it while sprinting down the street?
It's impossible not to be effected by the level of squalor on display or the tremendous performances (honestly, the actors yank the film from bad to pretty-good more or less by themselves), but as a functioning film it's DEEPLY flawed. Shower the cast with praise and statues, fine... but the placement of the film itself on any kind of "year's best" list is - at best - charity and at worst self-deception.