PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL 'PUSH' BY SAPPHIRE
Director: Lee Daniels
Cast: Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Paula Patton, Sherri Shepherd, Stephanie Andujar, Amina Robinson, Chyna Layne, Xosha Roquemore, Angelic Zambrana, Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz
MPAA Rating: (for child abuse including sexual assault, and pervasive language)
Running Time: 1:50
Release Date: 11/6/09
Review by Mark Dujsik
"…Even the longest journey
begins with a small step. Whatever
… that means."
Here is a film that's a study in Murphy's Law, full of small steps. It is so honestly written, so vividly directed, and so brilliantly performed we are transported to a psychological nightmare of despair, insecurity, only the slightest glimmer of hope, and the smallest, most bittersweet rewards.
Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire (an admittedly wordy and extraneous title) follows a young girl, who, at 16, is under-educated, illiterate, obese, pregnant for the second time, and doesn't even know she has a chance for a worthwhile life after a lifetime of being told and shown that she's worthless by the people closest to her. She is a victim of physical, emotional, verbal, psychological, and sexual abuse at the words and hands of her mother and absentee father.
She is Claireece "Precious" Jones (Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe). It is Harlem, 1987, and she lives alone with her mother (Mo'Nique) in a shabby, two-level apartment. Her home life consists of eating, watching TV, eating some more, and watching more TV. When she comes home without a pack of cigarettes for her mom, mom whacks her in the back of the head from across the room.
Precious has been suspended from junior high school after the principal (Nealla Gordon) learns of her second pregnancy. When the principal comes by with an offer to attend an alternative school, mom makes Precious try to get rid of her through the intercom. Mom doesn't want anyone interfering with her daughter's education, because it might mean no more welfare. In fact, she'd much rather Precious not attend school, so her daughter can start getting her own welfare checks. Mom even keeps Precious' young daughter (whom she calls "Mongo" because the baby has Down Syndrome) out of the house with her own mother, so she can cash the check for two dependents without actually caring for either of them.
There is nothing healthy about Precious' life. She steals a bucket of chicken from a diner after her mother ignores her pleas for some money for food, gorges herself on it, and vomits in a garbage can while waiting to start class at her new school.
Her mother constantly crushes whatever is left of her ego, even going so far as to blame Precious for her father raping her. Soon after we first meet mom, she has a ferocious rant, ending with the wish that she had an abortion. They get into a fierce fight later in the film, and director Lee Daniels flashes photographs of the two over the years. Mom is happy with her daughter at the beginning, and soon, they become obviously separated. This is the ultimate result.
The buildup to that fight is harrowing. Precious climbs the long flight of stairs to the apartment with her newborn son in her arms, becoming winded, and we think the worst is over. That is until mom wants to hold her new grandson, and it becomes unbearably painful to watch.
When Precious looks in the mirror at her ideal self, she sees a blonde, white woman. When a classmate calls her fat, Precious' first instinct is to furiously and repeatedly hit the girl.
While remembering one of her father's sexual assaults, Precious looks past some water damage in the ceiling to a vision of herself as a famous actress, walking the red carpet at a movie premiere with confidence, signing autographs and thanking her many, adoring fans.
She has other fantasies, of becoming a singer, a model, and having a light-skinned boyfriend, because these are the things society tells her are ideal. Without a parental figure to tell her to find her own ideal but—quite the opposite—that she shouldn't even bother with an ideal of any kind, this is all there is.
This is the sad, cyclical nature of Precious' life. It is all she has ever known, and as such, she has no concept of any other way it could possibly be. The glint of hope of the film is that she slowly discovers a way out; the real tragedy is that every wound that starts to heal is infected underneath.
At her new school, Precious' teacher is Blue Rain (Paula Patton), whose strictness is betrayed by her caring gaze. She genuinely cares for her students, sees how much care Precious needs, and gives as much as she can. Ms. Rain has private tutoring with Precious to teach her to read, makes her write her thoughts daily in a journal, and is there at the hospital after her new baby is born.
Precious is at first resistant to Ms. Rain, as one would expect her to be after everything that's happened in her life, but she begins to open up. She also does as her mother says and sees a social worker (Mariah Carey), at first to talk welfare checks but soon enough to reveal her mother's neglect, cruelty, and abuse of the system.
These are outstanding performances all around. Patton manages to walk the border between maternal and professional as the strong center of support.
Mo'Nique gives an absolutely ferocious performance as a monster of a woman, unbridled and unbalanced. Her final moment, sitting before her daughter and the social worker and baring her soul is simultaneously heartbreaking and frightening at the same time, for the same reason. There is humanity present within her, but it is so hideously warped as to resemble something inhuman.
Sidibe is a revelation in her debut performance, traversing the range of Precious' psychological turmoil, at once quiet and shy and yet showing something fiery just beneath the surface waiting to erupt.
Daniels balances Precious' dreams, the past, the horrific reality of her situation, and the growth of a girl to a woman (the moment her dreams die to be replaced by reality is both subtle and piercing) with a lucid vision, and Geoffrey Fletcher's screenplay finds the personal truth amidst the piling up of melodramatic complications to the point they only seem like melodrama in retrospect.
All of it comes together so that the experience of watching Precious (We'll ignore the rest of the title for now—that's what credits are for) is staggering. It is not inspiring in the way late-comer producers Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry want you to believe; the film is full of too much complexity for something that simple.What it does leave is the faith that things will get worse without getting better, but that Precious has the strength to face it on her own. It's a small prize, certainly, but even that is more than enough for her and us.
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.