Precious, based on Sapphire's novel Push, is a uniquely singular story. Although it tells a tale of an abused and impoverished inner-city sixteen-year old girl, it does not claim to represent all who fall under that category. It does not aim to be the urban-plight drama to end all urban-plight dramas, but instead it focuses on one person and the people around her who shape her past and her probable future. It occasionally tracks in cliché, but its unassuming nature redeems its notable storytelling flaws. Director Lee Daniels, writer Geoffrey Fletcher, and star Gabourey Sidibe pull of a delicate balancing act, filling their dark and brutal narrative with honest humor and occasional lights of kindness, while never letting it overpower the tragedy at play. It is marvelously acted and sharply insightful, but its greatest strength is its lack of pretension.
A token amount of plot: Clareece 'Precious' Jones is a morbidly-obese sixteen-year old illiterate living in Harlem. Currently pregnant with her second child conceived by her father's incestuous abuses, she faces the constant physical and emotional violence of her mother, who blames Clareece for stealing her boyfriend's affections. Having been brought up to believe that she is ugly, stupid, and destined for nothing other than a slow death, Precious has pretty much shut down outside of her own daydreams. But a glimmer of hope asserts itself, as an invitation to an 'alternative school' and the attentions of a compassionate social worker brings the brutalized teen into an environment where she is at last being treated as something resembling a human being.
Above all else, the film is an acting powerhouse from all involved. Comedian Mo'Nique goes all in as Mary, the somewhat monstrous matriarch. While her vicious tirades and brutal abuse threaten to become almost cartoonish, Mo'Nique always reminds us that this is a human being who has given up on life, someone who once too had dreams, hopes, and the capacity for love. The story of Mary is as much a tragedy as Precious's journey, as reflected in the sad eyes of Mary's own mother (stuck raising her down-syndrome-stricken great-granddaughter, her every moment portrays the sadness of failure at having raised a true monster). In fact, Mary's final scene is a such a powerful one that it threatens to overpower the climax, which should be about the choices that Precious has made and what she does with the life she still has left to live. As the representative of goodness and decency, Paula Patton gives a nicely shaded portrait of pure goodness as Precious's teacher and savior, Ms. Rain. But even she is allowed to have conflicted thoughts and a specific point of view, as the weariness of caring for someone so in need eventually takes a toll.
The rest of the supporting cast makes the most of small roles. Mariah Carrey has a few choice scenes, as her seemingly seen-it-all social worker slowly becomes overwhelmed by her client's grim backstory. Lenny Kravitz has fun as a witty and kindhearted nurse's aide. And the girls who make up Precious's alternative school class make the most of their limited screentime, and their every act of kindness and acceptance is another ray of light to a young girl not used to being tolerated, let alone liked. But it is newcomer Gabourey Sidibe who rightfully owns the film. Sidibe is the real deal. This is a refreshingly subtle and physical performance, as Sidibe does much with little dialogue. The camera loves her face, and it is her eyes that don't dare to light up or the mouth that cannot even muster up the energy to frown that commands our attention. She gets no big scenes and no major monologues and it's a remarkably un-showy performance.
So while the film succeeds as a powerful acting treat and a potent character study, there are some major narrative issues that prevent the film from being an accidental masterpiece. First of all, the timeline of the film is hopelessly skewed. The film begins with an already pregnant Precious entering the alternative school in 1987. Yet the 1989 Tian'anmen Square massacre apparently occurs before Precious gives birth to her second child. Frankly, I don't know why the film is a period piece at all, except perhaps t0 enhance the bitterness of a third-act plot twist. Furthermore, the whole film skips huge chunks of time and lets major moments go forward without consequence. For example, Precious eventually opens up to her social worker about the welfare fraud that her mother is committing, yet we never discover what happens in the household as a result of that confession.
More importantly, we never find out what happens to her incestuous father, as there is not even a hint of any kind of consequences for his multiple rapes even after the secret is out in the open. That leads into the film's most glaring problem, which involves the treatment of Precious's father as a character. While the mother is portrayed as a flesh and blood human being, the centerpiece antagonist of the film, the father is seen only in shadows during the flashbacks to the various sexual assaults. As a perhaps unintentional result, most of the audience's fury is directed at Mary, the mother who allowed her daughter to be raped and then blamed her child for stealing her man. Fair enough, but that basically lets the actual rapist (and originator of the cycle of despair) off the moral hook.
These glaring issues aside, the film still works as a potent character study and a glimpse inside a world we'd rather pretend does not exist in America. It will be interesting to see how people jump over themselves to find hope and optimism in a story that ends with little. This is a dark, sad, and mournful picture, which makes the occasional rays of kindness (a birthday card with a $20 bill from a kind nurse, classmates showing up to support one of their own in times of need and in times of triumph) all that much more potent. But while the film does not pretend that there are not countless children living lives similar to that of Clareece 'Precious' Jones, the filmmakers do not burden themselves with representing all of them. This is a singular film about a single human being. And on that simple level, Precious works as an acting tour de force and a powerful slice of life.