Thursday, December 3, 2009

On The Blind Side and Precious

For many, The Blind Side and Precious seem like antidotes to each other, the former offering a nonthreatening feel-good story primarily to white people (more on that later) to offset the tragedy of the other, and the latter countering The Blind Side's naïveté and potential condescension with searing docudrama. Yet they are flip-sides of the same coin, both fairy tales about surviving and possibly prospering following a life of hardships. Their approaches are different, radically so, yet they both end up in more or less the same place, which might be why I have such a problem with each of them.

The titular protagonist of Precious is a morbidly obese 16-year-old, pregnant with her second child by her own father, and that's only the tip of the iceberg of her problems. She's also illiterate, HIV-positive and abused physically and mentally by her mother (Mo'Nique in a terrifying performance). I'd tip-toe around potential spoilers, but Daniels structures the film so that every reveal feels like the punctuation mark continuing to the next line. Oh, Precious was raped by her father? Of course she was. She can't read even though she's excellent at math? Yes, that's technically within the realm of possibility.

These moments are so stacked on top of each other that the audience in my showing laughed at first, assuming -- almost naturally -- that such a desperate pile-on could only be pitch-black comedy. Then the film wore on, and they stopped laughing. Then they groaned and gasped, which is all this film wanted from them.

I'm sorry, I was going to ease into this, but I've buried the lede enough: I thoroughly did not enjoy this film. I do not mean that I derived no pleasure from the events depicted on-screen, because that of course is not what this film is trying to do. I mean that I found it a hypocritical depressive, lasciviously lingering over the horrors of the urban poor like an emotional rubbernecker.

Certain aspects of the film are revealing, such as the dream world that Precious hides in, where she dances about without a care in the world, bulbs flashing an audiences cheering. There's also something interesting about her ideal look, not simply thin but white. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe proves her chops by jumping between these dream sections and the terrible reality of Precious' existence; it's incredible to see her face light up in these reveries compared to the squinted stone face she presents to the world. All of the actors, in fact, are superb. Mo'Nique embodies Precious' evil mother, a person for whom the term "fucked up" seems more a scientific evaluation than any official diagnosis. She's so good that Daniels and the rest of the crew, so absorbed in shocking us, don't know how to handle her unhinged, raw performance, and the comedienne turns what was undoubtedly a character written for an Oscar on paper into both the film's most absurd, deprave aspect and its most fascinating and, for lack of a better term, entertaining. Paula Patton's alternative school teacher provides the film a tether into some emotion that doesn't make us feel like we need a shower, while Mariah Carey has a small but significant role as a social worker. Even Lenny Kravitz shows up, thus answering the question, "Hey, whatever happened to Lenny Kravitz?" But no actor individually or collectively breaks the film of its Von Trier-esque fascination with Precious' pain, filmed with spastic pseudo-glee by Daniels.

You might be wondering at this point how, if this story is so torrid, can I lump it in with fairy tales? Most people think "fuzzy" and "happy" when they think of fairy tale, but that only ever applies to the finale. Everything before that is, even in the Disneyfied contemporary versions of these stories (perhaps more so, given the shiny coat of gloss they paint over them), an occasionally horrific depiction of physical and psychological abuse: Cinderella was forced into servitude by her stepmother and kept prisoner in her own home. Even Harry Potter had to live in a cupboard for his formative years.

Precious certainly has all of these aspects, and more; Precious and her mother live in a windowless apartment at the top of a complex that can only be reached by climbing a seemingly endless spiral of stairs, a visual trick that establishes their fetid room as the tallest tower in the castle where the witch hides the princess. Mary Lee is Precious' biological (not step-) mother, but she's every bit as twisted as the villainous relatives of classical fairy tales. She's a creature who only understands that which she can immediately appreciate and understand -- money, food, sex -- and anything outside that bubble is something to be feared. She has a speech in the end where she attempts to absolve herself but only reveals what an insane monster she truly is. Precious' warped fairy tale is even highlighted by the script in a scene where the kids in the alternative class are made to write their own fairy tales.

Precious does not end as a typical fairy tale, though I notice with uneasiness that a number of reviews accept its finale of quiet assertiveness as a sign of the film's "realism," tossing out the term as if the macho thugs of Fight Club chanting "His name was Robert Paulson!" Like those misguided souls, the people who would praise something simply for its realism miss the point, that simply painting a realistic portrait means nothing if it does not support a point. Yes, Precious declares her will to live and learn at the end, but does that tiny moment feel like a justification of what came before it? For me, it doesn't; all I could think about watching this was The Passion of the Christ, a film consisting of two hours of torture scenes and a murder that banked on audiences finding an uplifting resolution by bringing one in with them. Let me be clear: I do not believe that a tale of gritty realism needs to have an upbeat ending. Then all such films would be Slumdog Millionaire. But this, this is sociological porn.

Furthermore, who on Earth finds any of this "realistic?" Precious is a dumping ground for the horrors that take place among the poor in this country, but no one person could handle everything so mercilessly placed upon her shoulders. She's not only raped impregnated twice and given HIV by her father, she's blamed by her mother for "taking her man." When Precious gave birth to her first child, who incidentally has Down Syndrome, she did so on the kitchen floor as Mary Lee kicked her in the head. I nearly got up and left on that revelation, tempted to scream at the screen as if watching one of Michael Bay's casually racist pictures. Anyone who would call this "realistic" just because its protagonist suffers horribly would have to use the same adjective to describe the Saw movies.

To those who did find Precious worthy, and though one should strive to ignore reviews of contemporary films, the Precious love was everywhere, I would ask this question to determine its supposed emotional impact and the way it affects our perception of some sections of society: does the film mobilize us into action or does it stun us into silence? To put it another way, does Precious inspire rage at a society that has marginalized the poor and forced its young into a terrible cycle, or does the film simply make me mad at itself? I am sad to say that I answered the latter.

Now, if you refuse to accept Precious as a fairy tale, you'll almost certainly accept The Blind Side as such, though of the two it stakes the better claim to reality. For while some (myself included) might cynically view the story of a rich white family taking in a poor, semi-literate black child and raising him to be a football star as yet another example of Hollywood pictures depicting whites as the saviors of downtrodden minorities, it's important to remember that the film is based on a true story, making such objections largely baseless. It's also ridiculous to say, "Well, if it was the other way around, this movie wouldn't have been made," as, to my knowledge, the same story didn't happen with races reversed. I'm pretty confident, however, when I say that, had the opposite film been made and a white person been rescued and adopted by a black family, the film would damn sure occur from the perspective of that white person.

Michael Oher (Quintan Aaron) does not enjoy that luxury. As the opening voiceover reveals, The Blind Side is the story as told by Leigh Anne Tuohy, the woman who eventually adopted Oher. Her children go to Wyngate Christian School, where a black mechanic brings his son and a towering teenager named "Big Mike" to apply. He goes to the school's coach first, who cannot handle an admissions request but can certainly look at Big Mike, who doesn't have the sort of grades that young Stephen does, and decide whether he wants to fill one of the positions on his football team with a brick wall. He sits in on the admissions meeting, having no reason to do so and even dressed in his athletic uniform and defends Big Mike's abysmal GPA to the skeptical teachers, pointing to the school's seal and harping on how it has "Christian" in the title, and I look down at my scribbled notepad to see that I wrote "Oh, Christ" at this juncture.

Michael gets in, and eventually the teachers learn that, while his reading skills are poor, he can retain information and pass tests if someone asks him the questions. But when the mechanic who houses Michael from his crackhead mother finally sends him packing, Mike ends up homeless, wandering the cold in hopes of sleeping in the hard, but warm, school gym. Leigh Anne and her family happen upon him, and she offers to let him stay at their house. Writer-director John Lee Hancock wastes no time establishing Leigh Anne as the ultimate Southern woman -- a sports-loving belle who's sweet but surprisingly forceful and unyielding.

Hancock spends much of the film attempting to trace Oher's past through Leigh Anne, who can never find details on his story even though Hancock gives everything away to the audience through sloppily edited flashbacks. These repeated clips are played in short bursts, meant to tantalize us into searching for the truth, but any moron could piece together a sufficient understanding of Oher's childhood the first time Hancock plays the clip, and certainly by the time that he at last plays the full flashback. This separates the audience from Leigh Anne's anxiety over discovering her new child's past, thus exposing the flaw of framing the story around her and not the boy.

And so, The Blind Side is packed to the gills with shots of Leigh Anne taking Mike to the Big & Tall store, of Leigh Anne searching for his records, of Leigh Anne defending her love of this kind black child to her racist friends, of Leigh Anne, of Leigh Anne. Michael isn't talkative, but that might be because he can't get a word in edgewise. He just accepts the Tuohys' charity with those doleful puppy-dog eyes looking like they might burst into tears or light up in excitement at any moment. He looks so much like a puppy that some of the scenes take on an unsettling undertone, such as the family picking him up on the side of the road like a stray.

Hancock's first choice to play Oher.

It's important to note a film's target audience, and I was interested to see that, in contrast to the people watching Precious with me, the considerably more populated Blind Side was filled almost exclusively with middle-aged to elderly white people. It's appropriate; this is a film entirely for white people to feel good about themselves. Liberals will enjoy seeing a poor black kid break out of the system, while conservatives will love its shameless equation of basic human decency to Christian ethics -- to the point that I ran home to see if anyone involved worked on a Kirk Cameron project in the past -- with the balance leaning towards the conservative side of the gauge. There's even a point in this film where the Tuohy's hire a tutor (Kathy Bates) for Mike, who cautiously tells Leigh Anne, "There's something you should know about me. I'm a Democrat," which is one of the worst jokes I've heard all year.

As The Blind Side seeks to portray Michael's story as somewhat miraculous, Hancock edits out the details of his life story that might make the kid's rise seem more identifiable. Oher's first tryout with the school team is presented as his first exposure to football (the real Oher says that he'd been playing since middle school and was just rough around the edges, not a fool), and he can't even follow the coach's basic instructions until Leigh Anne shows up to ensure that the scene involved her in some way and suddenly inspires Mike to being the best damn brick wall who ever was. Near the end, she has a moment of cringe-inducing declaration, defending her adopted child to the dealers in his old neighborhood with one of those "you ain't messing wit my children" displays of country-fried motherly bravado.

Maybe all of this wouldn't stick out as much if the acting and direction had been more noticeable. Aaron, bless him, tries his best, but he seems to believe, as a normal person, that the film is about his character when it isn't, and he too tries to craft some mystery around the character when we already know what we need to know. Tim McGraw makes little impact as Sean Tuohy, though it's hard to rag on him considering that his character simply follows his wife's orders anyway and that he's playing second fiddle to Sandra Bullock, one of the most charismatic and genuinely likable actors working in Hollywood today (it is with no uncertain amount of sadness that I say that this is the best movie she's done since Miss Congeniality, though they're both equally indispensable). However, the Tuohy's young son SJ made me want to tear out my eyeballs and choke him with them. Oher's time at the private school openly contrasts his towering, black frame with the sea of white he wades through -- whatever happened to that other black kid? -- but SJ bitches near the beginning as he rides home from a school play that he didn't get to play the part of the Indian chief because of the school's "multicultural bias" and that the kid who played him was "like Chinese." I wrote both of these lines down and I see now that I also placed not one but five question marks after it. I then wrote, "The little kid is racist and awful," which is all I really have to say on the subject.

Yet for all of The Blind Side's aesthetic blandness and its questionable narrative, the whole package was so banal as to be entirely inoffensive -- granted, there's something offensive about making a story like this so Hollywoodized and tame, but this film is too bland even to inspire outrage at its blandness. Precious too sported weak direction and worse editing, but it featured some of the year's more memorable performances. Yet its perverse embracing of its twisted horrors shocked me to the core. The biggest contrast between them is, surprisingly, that The Blind Side follows a fairly realistic plot -- having actually happened -- before reaching a fairy tale ending (which also happened), while Precious lays out the fairy tale setup but ends with a quieter moment that is covered by the lingering echo of the deafening roar preceding it. Interestingly, both films end with a certain hypocrisy: Precious' declarations are undermined by the knowledge of her HIV infection and what it means for her lifespan (remember, the film is set in 1987, not today). In The Blind Side, Oher's choice of college is investigated by suspicious NCAA reps looking for any influence his new family might have exerted on him to play football after adopting him, at least addressing the concerns of the cynical members of the audience. But after the inevitable Big Misunderstanding, he returns and says he wants to go to the college of his choice because, "[his] family went there."

When I decided to see these two films as a double-hitter, I assumed they would be polar opposites and, to be honest, that one would offend the hell out me. I could have never guessed in a month of Sundays that the one that did would be Precious.

P.S. Since some might wonder what star ratings I'd give these, as they are both contemporary releases, I'd give Precious 1.5/5 and The Blind Side 2-2.5/5 (not entirely sure yet).


  1. While watching Precious, I too was thinking "the perfomances are good", but also "why are you showing me this?" I don't regret watching it because, as I'm sure it did with everyone who watched it, at least served to remind you how much more your life could suck, but beyond that, it didn't change or motivate anything else in me, and thus ultimately failed.

  2. Are you entirely sure that the intended audience is mainly white people, perhaps this would encourage "Black People" to excel with their goals their life or even think about their life and the direction it is going in.