When we initially meet the titular heroine of Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire, we can hardly imagine deeper or crueler maws of despair than the domestic environs and daily routine she has to endure. She is clammed up in her own shell barely registering her middle-school surroundings other than when she suddenly lashes out at another student for mocking her about her weight. She is already 16 and still barely passing through middle school in reading and writing literacy. And despite being only 16, she is already pregnant with her second child from incestuous abuse by the hands of her father. Her mother does not treat her much better, as vitriolic words spew out from the mother’s inner, selfish jealousy towards her daughter for “stealing away” her man.
This is the launching point for director Lee Daniels’ film, which starts from the deepest, harshest maws of despair and somehow salvages us to an ultimately rewarding conclusion. The movie does not flinch in its portrayal of pure cruelty and human ugliness with its ruthless intensity and authenticity. What makes it one of the best films of the year is how its moves to an unusually uplifting outcome that is just as authentic by having it come about from our gradual embrace of its lead protagonist’s inner spirit and the courage she finally musters up to break free from the forces that have crushed her for so long.
The heroine is Clarice “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), who unsurprisingly has simply emotionally shut down and the only escape she has is in fanciful daydream sequences shot in flashing reds and white lights in which she imagines herself as a famous fashion celebrity in the limelight. In school, the principal, after hearing about her low grades as well as her second pregnancy, decides that she should go to an alternate school called Each One/Teach One where she can attain her GED. Precious’ vitriolic mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), of course, mocks and curses at her seeing that she sees no use for Precious in school and would just rather see her resort to welfare. With a personal encouragement of the school principal who visits her home, however, she sets her mind to attend Each One/Teach One.
The school is where she finds her first ray of light in her teacher, Ms. Rain (Paula Patton). Of course, Precious can hardly open herself up to anything in the class and can hardly even seem to mutter when she tries to talk about herself, although that gradually starts to change with Ms. Rain’s encouragement. The second ray of light comes from a kind social worker, Ms. Weiss (Mariah Carey) and both Ms. Rain and Ms. Weiss gradually take a personal interest to help this girl perhaps because neither of them could think of anyone else who could be in worse circumstances than the one Precious has had to endure.
It is astonishing how Daniels, along with his writer, Geoffrey Fletcher, who adapts the novel is able to orchestrate all these harsh melodramatic elements and this unusually eclectic cast together to form an emotional whole. The casting choices may seem rather laughable and off-putting on paper just as Daniels’ first directorial feature, Shadowboxer did for the few people who saw that obscure film. That film, if you may recall, had Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Helen Mirren starring as two assassins having a tortured, incestuous step-mother and son relationship. The story in that film really tried to do too many risky and outrageous things that it ultimately shattered its own test tubes. But a director who is that bold and out there is sooner or later destined to make a great film and Daniels, who also produced other films with incendiary subject matter such as Monster’s Ball and The Woodsman, finally has with a tighter coherence and the purer emotional focus he brings to his individual characters.
That focus here extracts uncommonly strong performances from its entire cast. Mo’Nique has already been getting well-deserved awards attention for playing the monstrous mother who, in her best and most vulnerable scene, shows that, in the end, she is also painfully human and real even if it does not excuse the way she has treated her daughter. It is also nice to see Paula Patton, who really should get more substantial lead roles, turn her naturally tender on-screen sensibilities to bring some much needed warmth to this film. The biggest surprise, however, is from none other than Mariah Carey, who delivers such an emotionally guileless and natural performance as the social worker that it makes one forget all about Glitter. Also, look for rock star Lenny Kravitz who disappears into playing a gentle nurse’s aide in one of the film’s lighter, humorous moments where Precious’ classmates are a little bit too blunt in expressing how they have never having seen a male nurse’s aide before.
Then there is Gabourey Sidibe. I am afraid that she is already getting sidelined by her supporting cast where much of the attention is going and that it a shame because it is really her performance that really grips our attention the most like a vice. Watch the way she shows her struggling to mutter words and yet is able to suggest in her eyes that she has an intelligent mind ticking inside her desiring to learn and make better of herself. The fiery courage that will guide her is already in there waiting to flower and it is what instantly and subtly wins our hearts over for Precious.
I said that the movie is unusually uplifting by its end and I do not mean that it is so in the conventional sense we often get in the movies. There is nothing that suddenly lifts Precious from her circumstances and predicament such as someone to help her become the fashion celebrity she fantasizes herself of becoming in her daydreams. What Precious ultimately learns is that the only person who can help her situation is her own self and that solely emotional triumph and realization to live her life as she finally wants is more rewarding and moving than any other worldly force that whisks and sweeps her away.
Bottom line: What are you waiting for? Go see it!