When I taught high school English years ago, the most depressing times for me were the nights of the parent-teacher conferences. For it was then that I truly knew what my kids were up against. I would send home letters, emails, make phone calls urging parents to come and talk to me about their children and how we can work together to get their child engaged.
The evening would come, and nothing. No parent, no child, no response. It was then that I truly realized what these kids were up against. How was anything that I would say going to matter when their own parents cared so little about what their child was doing for seven hours out of the day?
The mother of Precious, the heroine of the awkwardly titled film Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire, would have most certainly ignored my calls. For she is too busy exploiting the girl for welfare, stripping away every shred of self worth, and turning a blind eye to the repeated sexual abuse the girl receives at the hands of her own father.
There's nothing funny about comedienne Mo'Nique's depiction of this wretched, lazy shrew of woman, and all that you have heard about her performance is spot on. It's the kind of gritty role (much like Charlize Theron's portrait of a serial killer in Monster or Halle Berry in director Lee Daniels' Monster's Ball) over which Oscar voters salivate. And it is deserved, but so, too, is 23-year-old Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe as the film's star. As the teenage Precious, Sidibe imbues her with stoic passivity, only allowing a smile during dreams of a better life.
Despite her large frame, Precious is a cipher to most, drifting through her days hoping that no attention will be paid to her for fear of anyone finding more faults than her mother persistently points out. She is also burdened with caring for her two young children born out of incestuous rape, one of whom suffers retardation as a result.
But along with the two aforementioned actresses, Mariah Carey also sheds the glitter to turn in a sharp supporting role as a just-the-facts social worker who takes a shine to Precious. Rounding out the strong female-centric cast is Paula Patton as Ms. Rain, a teacher/mentor who witnesses glimpses of possibility from the sullen girl and provides her with a nurturing boost amidst the horrors of home.
If it all sounds hopelessly grim, it is. But it is also achingly real. In fact, if there is a strange fault to Precious, it is that director Daniels seemingly insists on us witnessing every torturous turn of events that Precious must endure. Some may argue that it adds to the film's realism, but it comes close to clobbering us with its point. Ironically, this realism also works to the film's advantage, though.
What ultimately saves Precious is its conclusion, which does not end with a valedictorian walk, a beauty queen tiara, or a white-picketed home in the country, but merely a step in the right direction. Daniels deserves credit for resisting the temptation to polish his film with an incongruous fairy tale conclusion, for it would only make a mockery of the marathon of pain to finish with a sprint to victory.
During my stint as a high school teacher, I met Precious. In fact, I met more Preciouses than I should have, many of whom will go on to repeat the sad cycle of abuse that her mother inflicted on her. But the beauty of film – and of Precious – is that perhaps just one of them will see this and realize their own worth and slowly begin to dig herself out as well.