written by Geoffrey Fletcher (based on the novel "Push" by Sapphire)
directed by Lee Daniels
starring: Gabourey "Gabby" Sibidbe, Mo'Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz and Sherri Shepherd
The nickname Precious, which has been given to Claireece Jones (Sidibe), presumably by her mother, almost serves as a sick, tongue-in-cheek joke that runs throughout this film. Very little in this film is precious (quite intentionally). Watching this film, it's hard for the viewer to even imagine Claireece's monstrous mother Mary (played with frightening bravura by Mo'Nique) gifting her with such a lovely nickname, reflective of her love for her daughter. Regardless of one's opinion of this film, it is certainly one of the most arresting moviegoing experiences in recent memory. I yawned and nodded off several times during Paranormal Activity, but I sat up with fear, feeling goosebumps form on my arm each time Mary yelled "Precious."
This story of an illiterate obese Harlem teenager in the 1980s, pregnant by her father for the second time, harangued and ridiculed at school, and verbally and physically beaten down by her abusive mother is not for the faint of heart, and is no movie of the week. The elements are certainly there. There's the saintly teacher at the alternative high school, determined to breakthrough to her (Paula Patton as Ms. Blu Rain) and the caring but tired social worker Ms. Weiss (played with aplomb by Mariah Carey). It easily could have been saccharine and hackneyed, if not for how beautifully it is made. Films like this are rarely a showcase for cinematographers, but Andrew Dunn manages to experiment, being imaginative and artful without being too showy. There are a few exceptions. Precious often escapes into her own fantasies, where she is a runway model, a movie star, a heroine in a Vittorio De Sica film along with her mother. If the film is ever treading too close to the edge of the cliff, it is during these sequences, but it is no matter. The stark, harrowing realism of the rest of the film jolts you back to reality so fast, much in the same way that I imagine it does for Precious.
Every performance in this film is absolutely pitch perfect. I read Push, the novel that is the basis for the film, weeks before I ever saw a trailer. I thought to myself, the only way they can find an actress to portray Precious, downtrodden, close-mouthed, eyes on the floor as if afraid to look at the horror before her, is to find Precious herself. Sidibe's Precious Jones evokes images of Heath Ledger's Ennis Del Mar. So terse, yet conveying so much pain and internal struggle. Every word spoken is labored, every smile a miracle, as if the desire or need to do either has been frightened and beaten out of her. And yet, Sidibe is not Precious. She's big, yes. But the comparison ends there. She's bubbly, friendly. She was popular in high school, and her voice and cadence are reminiscent of the girl at the beginning of the Sir-Mix-a-Lot song "Oh my God, Becky. Look at her butt. It is so big..." She delved deep into this character and navigates the emotions and archs that Precious herself lacks the language to communicate, eking out a rich characterization that never falters, never missteps.
Mo'Nique is terrifying as Mary, who has her daughter trapped in a sick co-dependent relationship. She needs Precious to make her meals, buy her cigarettes and to act as a punching bag to deflect the spectacular failure that is her own life. At every glimmer of potential, possibility and light in Precious's life, Mary seems sadly determined to snuff it out. She cannot and will not allow her daughter to rise above the conditions that trapped her. And her failure to stop Precious precipitates her emotional breakdown at the end of the film, which could have served to engender misplaced sympathy in a lesser film. Here, the character is so well understood that it only serves to reinforce to the reader how horribly, how pathetically Mary has failed and betrayed Precious both as a mother and as a fellow human being. She envelopes the film, even in the scenes where she is absent as a dark, ominous cloud. It is one for the ages.
I had my defense up going into this film. It was almost impossible not to. Firstly, the last time people went out in droves and raved about the little film that could, that film was called Slumdog Millionaire. And I'm sorry to that film's fans, but...I just wasn't there. It's strange to be on the other side of the hype, much as I was with Juno (an aside: Juno was a fine film. The problem is, once it got popular, it became uncool to like it, and heaven help you if your film choices make you look uncool. I still contend that the people who hated it and the people who raved about it are two sides of the same coin in that they both made way too much of a fuss). Secondly, I'm weary (probably unfairly so) of anything that gets Oprah's seal of approval. Maybe that's because I suspect that any movement or cultural phenomena led by Oprah mostly serves to call attention to Oprah. And Tyler Perry...don't get me started. I'm glad he recognizes that this movie is "so powerful," as he states in the film's second trailer. By the way, I think it's strange that Perry and Winfrey felt the need to stick their talking heads in the trailer. Their names are already becoming synonymous with the film. Then I remembered that Perry puts "Tyler Perry's" before the title of every movie he makes, and Oprah Winfrey is...well, Oprah Winfrey. Some people always need a stage, you know? Precious almost feels like a film that Perry himself would never have the balls to make, because it doesn't end with Precious forgiving Mary and the two of them going to church. But it is unfair to judge this film on these factors, very extrinsic to its quality and luster (although people will). I will say this. Oprah's insistence that Precious exists in all of us, while a sweet sentiment, is not what one should take away from this film. I think "For Precious girls everywhere," which appears at the end of the film, is a better and more accurate read of what this film is trying to say. We are NOT all Precious. Precious is someone that most of us don't see. She's someone we ignore. She's someone we dismiss and don't think about, possibly because we don't care, possibly because it's too painful to fathom. This is Precious's story, FINALLY. This IS for Precious girls everywhere.