Precious left me in a state of shock.
Based on the novel “Push” by Sapphire, who drew from her experiences as a reading teacher in Harlem, Precious explores the interior life of what must be one of the universe’s most tormented souls: Claireece Precious Jones, an obese, illiterate16-year-old girl from Harlem whose regular abuse at the hands of her father has already resulted in one child. As the movie begins, she’s pregnant with another.
Precious (newcomer Gabby Sidibe) has nowhere to turn. Her school threatens to suspend her. Her peers ridicule her. Her mother (Mo’Nique, in a terrifying and deceptively shaded performance) not only condones the sexual abuse, but also blames Precious for it.
As a result, Precious lives in her mind, and that’s where director Lee Daniels often takes us. Whenever the monstrosities get too close she retreats into elaborate fantasies, so that the brown and grays of the movie’s color palette are suddenly replaced, for example, by the bright colors and glitzy flashes of Precious proudly walking a fashion-show runway.
A real-life glimmer of hope appears when Precious connects with an alternative school serving troubled students. She meets a teacher (Paula Patton) who is invested in her and helps her discover that – despite her mother’s repeated assertions otherwise – she has intelligence and aspirations buried deep inside. She tells herself, “I’m gonna break through.”
I wish I could say the movie tracks her rise from this point, although I guess, in a way, that would make it a falser, inferior film. More troubles – and “troubles” seems such a benign word for what this girl faces – are ahead. No Hollywood teacher – Robin Williams, say, or Samuel L. Jackson or Michelle Pfeiffer – arrives to save the day.
Precious is unrelenting, yet never exploitative. It keeps its focus on the humanity, not the horror. Little glimpses of Precious’ awesome resilience offer relief, as when she mumbles the alphabet to herself as a form of comfort, or when she offers a shocking expression of optimism (“That’s why God, or whoever, makes new days,” she says at one point). One of the smallest moments in the film is the most moving. When a male nurse lays a gentle kiss on Precious’ forehead after she gives birth, you’ll want to burst into tears because you realize this may be the only genuine gesture of affection she’s ever experienced.
These instances lighten Precious, but they don’t define it. Precious’ life may have taken a turn for the better by the movie’s end, but the road ahead for her is still a harrowing one. In other words, don’t let that upbeat music over the final images fool you. This is a stark portrait of a tormented innocent our society has willfully forgotten. It’s an exercise in despair.