Misery Inc.

Blog by Keir Roper-Caldbeck | 01 Feb 2010

You know how it is. Browsing absent-mindedly along the shelves in a bookshop you find yourself staring, open mouthed, at rows of glossy books covered with pictures of 1950s underwear and words like “fetish”. You've strayed into the Erotica section again. Or perhaps it's the lurid, badly designed covers and tabloid titles of True Crime. Not really the impression you wanted to give. A prickle of embarrassment, a quick glance around, and you move on. But it's a different story if you drift inadvertently into Real Lives, the home of the misery memoir. Like a vegan caught in McDonald's, shame overwhelms you and you turn tail and run. All those books with titles like A Boy Called Shit, My Fucking Awful Life Was Worse Than Your Fucking Awful Life, and The Incest Diaries, are testament to an appetite for voyeuristic tales of abuse and suffering which you don't share.

It was with these mixed feelings that I went into watch Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. Although not strictly a misery memoir, Sapphire has been quick to point out that her novel was based on her experience as a literacy teacher working with deprived young women from the ghetto. She claims that everything that happens to Precious - a chronically obese and illiterate teenager who has been serially raped by her father and abused every which way by her mother – has happened to someone. After watching the agonisingly slow-motion car crash that is Precious's life - an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon scripted by Dave Pelzer and the Marquis De Sade - the only question is: surely not all to the same person?

This is not to say that Precious isn't interesting or skilfully made. Like all effective melodrama, the film understands that audiences have to be given relief from emotional extremes if they are not to feel manipulated. The fantasy sequences that are Precious's escape from the horror of events are ours too. There is also a humorous self-awareness to the storytelling; at one point, as Precious steams merrily towards yet another disaster, the film cuts to her literacy class where the teacher is asking her pupils for a definition of the word “unrelenting”. She is given a dictionary perfect answer. Even more important is Gabourey Sidibe's performance as Precious which rejects Oprah-style confessional hysterics and provides the film with its still centre. Her face is a stoic, immobile mask. When she finally cracks a small smile it breaks your heart. Set against her is her mother, played by Mo'nique with demonic conviction, a screen monster to rival Hannibal Lecter.

Yet just because you don't feel manipulated, it doesn't mean that you aren't being manipulated. The film has a manic, bleakly comic energy which hustles us along inexorably towards redemption – the pay-off for all the suffering. The climactic scene in which Precious's mother exposes the evil egotism at the centre of her desiccated soul and thus allows her daughter to break free from her clutches forever, leaves us elated. Yet contained within this scene there is a description of child abuse that left me feeling even more queasy than the (also troubling) rape scene at the film's beginning. Have we gone through all this simply for a moment of redemption? For another dose of exec-producer Oprah Winfrey's trademark adversity overcome by self-belief?

When a society keeps returning to a particular transgression, like a criminal to the scene of the crime, there is always something larger at stake. The obsession that Western culture has had with child abuse over the last couple of decades can be traced to the strains caused by the break-up of the nuclear family. The entry of these previously unspeakable crimes into the forefront of public consciousness has had incontrovertible benefits; it has given victims a voice with which to accuse their abusers and the language to begin the process of recovery. But for every worthwhile, positive intervention there is a tabloid hack who uses these crimes to generate outrage and sales, and a lazy writer who uses them to add a little prurient spice to his work. Ultimately, it is up to us to decide on which side of the line a story falls. In the case of Precious, I think the film just about gets away with it. While it raises the stakes with its graphic, relentless portrayal of abuse, this is balanced by the humanity of Sidibe's performance and an overall generosity of intent. But it is a close run thing.