A simple plot description of Lee Daniels’ “Precious” could illicit a simple response to those read it- ugh. A movie with such raw material to work with should be a chore, something that you watch expecting to be depressed on your way out the theatre.
Yes, there are moments of unflinching harshness in this adaptation of the novel “Push” by poet Sapphire, but as often as the film feels like salt rubbed in a wound, we find unexpected humor and uncompromising heart. The result has been praised by Oprah and Tyler Perry (listed as “presenters” of the film), and after audience awards at Sundance and Toronto, comes front-loaded with Oscar buzz.
Do yourself a favor- see it early, before you can hear too much about it. You’ll thank me. Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher have brought pain and passion to the story of Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), a 16-year-old Harlem girl with everything going against her. She dreams of walking the red carpet, fame, and fortune, but in reality, she doesn’t have much going for her. Morbidly obese, illiterate, pregnant with her second child (by her own father), and living with her abusive mother Mary (Mo’Nique), circumstance hasn’t been kind to Precious.
But through a series of events, things start to change. Precious is sent to an alternative school where her teacher (a lovely and heartwarming Paula Patton) inspires her to write in a journal everyday. And when she has to go on welfare for herself when she’s dropped by her mother’s, a social worker (an unrecognizable and altogether surprising Mariah Carey) makes her comfortable enough in her own skin to tell her story.
Other reviews have given away more, but I say skip them until after you’ve experienced the movie. As a producer, Daniels brought us Marc Forster’s unflinching “Monster’s Ball” and the underrated “The Woodsman,” with Kevin Bacon as a pedophile trying to keep his demons at bay when he’s let back into the real world. If you’ve seen either of those films, you’ll have some idea of what to expect from him in the director’s chair…
…and on some level, you won’t. Though some of them stick in the throat, the laughs into the despairing story are unusual for such a rough and riveting story. He doesn’t flinch from the emotional and physical pain Precious goes through, especially at the hands of her mother. Mo’Nique is unforgettable in a role that goes beyond gross characature and is fleshed out with her own emotional pain and personal demons to overcome. She’s come to blame Precious for “stealing her man”- and she treats her daughter’s children (including the Down-syndrome Little Mongo) with contempt and manipulation- but in a late scene that’ll be remembered for years, shows the cracks in her tough exterior.
But it’s too little, too late. Precious has said her goodbyes to the way she used to live, and- armed with her two children, and the dreams in her head- has accepted the things she can’t change, and is determined to make the best choices she can for herself, and her children. All of this works because in Sidibe’s tour de force performance, we’ve been let into Precious’ psyche, and we feel inspired by what she’s inspired in others. The kindness. The compassion. The love of life that even the hardest fist can’t bruise.