New York, in the early 80s. Pre-Giuliani and zero tolerance. Closer to Carpenter's Escape From New York and Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities. A time when there was still a sense that the city had that edge which it could be argued is part and parcel of a great city, the product of classes nuzzling up to one another, the presence of what could be deemed an underclass, the knowledge that whilst for some, life is a treadmill in the shadow of affluence, for others it is still, as has always been the norm rather than the exception, a battle for survival.
Nowadays, these cities are more likely to be found in the emerging economies, which are producing great wealth, but the majority of whose populations still live in a poverty which those in the West, even the poorest, might struggle to understand. New York, from what I can understand, has been cleaned up. The poorest of the poor have become invisible, as they are in my city. The argument isn't whether this is for the better or the worse, not here at any rate; merely to observe that Precious harks back to that time. In spite of its grittiness there's an element of nostalgia at play in the film, which is a paean to another time, another New York.
As such, there's a warmth to the film, which far outweighs the supposedly off-putting material. The characters who Precious meets, and who contribute to a kind of redemption, from her classmates to the male nurse to the social worker, are all sympathetic and humane. After emerging from the abusive hell of her family, Precious discovers that goodness does exist, indeed it is all around her. There's something Dickensian about the story, as the inarticulate and morose teenager finds her voice, and discovers that thing which Obamaites might term 'hope'.
Lee Daniels, the director, in association with his screenwriter and Sapphire, the author of the original novel, use restraint to ensure a fidelity to this journey. The director isn't afraid to let a long scene play itself out, allowing the full horror of the reality of what's happened to Precious to register on the face of her social worker. The film is given a muted grade, dulling the colours of the streets through which Precious passes. Some critics seem to feel that the film shows an exploitative attitude towards poverty, but this seems to miss the point. It's not the story of how someone was abused; it's the story of how someone discovers a way to recover from that abuse. The fact that 'the city' is a key player in the process perhaps adds to the sense that in spite of the city's greater poverty in that day and age, with all the ills that poverty brings with it, there might also have been a greater stock of kindness within its walls. Although that attitude too could be nothing more than a misplaced romanticism, something all nostalgia flirts with.