I feel like I’m almost required by law to like this movie. After all, it’s about a 16-year-old child of the ghetto who suffers a smorgasbord of abuse that’s nothing short of record setting. Plus, she’s portrayed by a 300-pound newcomer who projects an affecting combination of vulnerability and resilience. Not to mention the fact that both Oprah and Tyler Perry have given the film their coveted seal of approval. This has to be meaningful, ennobling cinema, right? Oprah says so.
While there are certainly things about Precious one can’t help but admire, I’m not so sure about the picture overall. I don’t quite see, for example, the point of conjuring this vision of a girl in hell; of creating a character just to put her through it. You probably assume there’s an inspirational message in there somewhere to justify the film’s infliction of monstrous cruelty, brutality and unthinkable mistreatment. Just barely.
Gabourey Sidibe makes her screen debut in the role of Claireece “Precious” Jones, a high school student who lives in the pregentrified Harlem of 1987. She’s taunted for her obesity, can’t read and is pregnant with her second child. And those are the high points of her existence.
Precious shares a hell hole of a walk-up with her layabout welfare mother, brought hair-raisingly to imperious, volatile life by the standup comedian Mo’Nique. When she’s not telling Precious how worthless she is, Mo’Nique is usually hurling heavy objects in her direction. But that isn’t the worst of it, believe it or not. First this mother looked the other way when the girl’s absentee father began sexually molesting her as a toddler. Now she rages at her daughter for “stealing” her man. Both of Precious’ pregnancies result from being raped by him.
It couldn’t possibly get more sordid, you say? Don’t be so sure. Director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher (and let’s not forget Sapphire) have further tribulations up their sleeves for our teenaged heroine. For instance, her first child was born with Down syndrome, and her father’s latest assault has left her with HIV. Is this film really based on the novel Push? It feels more like the Book of Job.
That’s an awful lot of adversity to heap on one set of young shoulders and expect anything credibly uplifting to follow. To the extent anything does, it’s attributable to Sidibe’s ability to convey convincingly a spectrum of emotional states. Early on, she’s closed off from the world, fantasizing from within a protective shell. Later a teacher (Paula Patton) and welfare case worker (Mariah Carey) intercede in her life. One teaches her to read and shows her places where she can find acceptance.
The other, the case worker, senses untold pain behind Precious’ tough mask and goes to great lengths to get her to tell her story, in the process setting in motion major changes in her life. Newcomer Sidibe does a nicely nuanced job of portraying the evolution of her character throughout. If she doesn’t exactly blossom, she at least takes the first steps toward getting out from under her mother’s thumb. A future that’s uncertain, I suppose, beats a past and present that are unforgiving.
This is grim, dark stuff, rescued from total bleakness by a handful of fine performances — Mo’Nique’s is a shoo-in for an Oscar nom — and inventive directorial touches. There’s a pathos-laced moment, for example, when Precious stares into a bedroom mirror, and a slender blond white girl looks back at her.
Most of the movie, though, is just unrelentingly brutal. So much so that I’m not even sure what genre it properly occupies. It’s been marketed as urban drama, but, if you ask me, it comes precariously close to horror.