Film review by: Witney Seibold
The full title is “Precious, Based on the Novel Push by: Sapphire.”
Clarise Precious Jones is morbidly obese. She is only 16, and pregnant with her second child. Both children were conceived by her father in a bout of greasy, incestuous rape. She is o.k. with numbers, but hasn’t learned to read or write. She lives with her ghoulish mother who forces her to eat, physically abuses her, and browbeats her at every opportunity. Her mother seems to genuinely hate her. She also lives on welfare, happy to not have to work. Precious, in a detail out of Toni Morrison, has fantasies of being thin and pretty. And white. Oh, Precious is also HIV positive. She is redeemed by a saintly teacher, a caring social worker, and a group of feisty at-risk peers who take her class with her.
When viewed cynically, the story of “Precious” sounds like every Afterschool special rolled into one. It hits all the hot buttons: eating disorders, teen pregnancy, AIDS, sexual abuse, physical abuse, illiteracy. It sounds like the ultimate TV melodrama, and one instantly pictures some weepy climax in which all the characters are simply redeemed through an unbelievable, touchy-feely session of psychobabbling therapy.
“Precious,” though, directed by Lee Daniels, and starring newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, has the fortunate feature of meaning what it says. There is not a whiff of cynicism or cheap melodrama. Daniels directs with a lot of handheld camerawork, lending the film an immediate raw style that overcomes any sense of falseness. What’s more, the acting is superb, and Daniels manages to get striking performances from some unexpected sources.
Sidibe, for instance, is a fat black girl who would ordinarily be ignored by most Hollywood filmmakers. She does not play Precious like a wounded lamb with a good heart. She plays Precious like a hurting human being with fantasies of escape, but no capacity to do so. Precious, we immediately see, is in need of rescue, but she is not a saintly avatar. She is a real person.
Precious’ saintly teacher, Ms. Rain is also not portrayed as a Christ-like redeemer, like in comparable teacher dramas. She is played by the pretty Paula Patton, and sees her own helping of others less as an altruistic imperative, and more as a utilitarian need. Here is a woman who sees damage, who has a limited ability to repair some of it, and does so as a part of her job. The same goes for the social worker Mrs. Weiss, played by, of all people, pop star Mariah Carey. Carey only has a few scenes, but manages to portray a woman with the world’s finest-tuned bullshit detector, and an instinctive need to undo the horrors around her, if not actually commit any acts of over-the-top heroic rescue.
We see, through Mrs. Weiss and Ms. Rain, that “Precious” is actually a drama about how well the system can work. There are, in place, institutions to aid people in the most horrible of situations. There are schools, there are social services, and there is potential for growth. I can think of no worse situation than that of Precious’, and she manages to overcome her personal horrors to escape in the best way possible. There are no miracles. There is just hard work and self-reliance. Sounding American yet?
The most impressive performance of all, though, comes from the least expected place. Comedienne Mo’Nique from “Phat Girlz” and “Soul Plane” plays Precious’ abusive, lazy, hateful mother, Mary. Mary is not a monster of the over-the-top cinematic type, who cackles and schemes, but an everyday monster who berates her child, resents the sexual attention she gets, lies to social workers to exploit the system, and one that is far more terrifying due to its reality. Mo’Nique has previously played broad comic types, and stultifyingly banal romantic comedy heroines. Who could have guessed she had such genuine darkness within her?
There are a few fantasy sequences that are a bit too much (Precious has a good-looking boyfriend and a career as a model in these fantasies), and some of the details of Precious’ abuse would have been more powerful if they were a touch less explicit. However, the film still manages to hit you in the gut, and be touching. It’s one of the better films I’ve seen this year.