"Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' By Sapphire" is an ungainly title for a powerfully ungainly movie. Boxers like to say that a punch hurts less if you see it coming. I saw just about every punch coming my way in "Precious" and yet it still packs a hurtful wallop. It melodramatizes everything and yet its overall effect is something more than melodrama.
Gabourey Sidibe plays Claireece "Precious" Jones, a 350-pound near-illiterate 16-year-old who is pregnant for a second time by her father, who turns out to be HIV positive, and lives with her nightmarishly abusive single mother Mary (Mo'Nique) in a dingy two-floor apartment in Harlem.
This litany of woe is laid on awfully thick. Director Lee Daniels and his screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher periodically showcase Precious's fantasies of dancing with a studly beau at the Apollo, or gazing into the mirror and seeing the reflection of a slim, blonde, white girl. You can cut the pathos with an Exacto knife. Much more egregious is how Daniels intercuts Precious being raped by her father with shots of eggs being fried in bubbly grease. Here is a filmmaker who does not trust his material to speak for itself.
What rescues "Precious" is that Daniels also has a sharp documentarian's eye for realism. As overblown and coercive as his movie often is, it also has admirable feel for the workaday struggles of its people, especially Precious's. It's a bizarrely bifurcated movie, alternately realistic and garishly hyperbolic.
Both Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey came on board as executive producers after the film won awards and standing ovations at Sundance (a response duplicated in Cannes and Toronto). It's easy to see what appealed to them: The heartbreak in this movie is never so abject that it cannot be overcome.
But this inspirationalism is what I liked least about "Precious."
Making Precious an Everygirl whose struggle becomes an advertisement for uplift feels false to the mood and tragedy of the piece. The horrors in this movie are not so easily dispelled. (It opens with the onscreen words "Everything is a gift of the universe." Some gift, some universe.)
Sidibe is an untrained actress but in some ways this works to the film's advantage. Her flat line readings and inexpressive features carry the conviction of someone who has closed herself off from empathy. Thrown out of school for being pregnant, Precious is nevertheless intelligent enough to realize she won't survive without an education, so she enrolls, much against her mother's boozy protestations, in an alternative school. Her rowdy classmates become friends, perhaps her first, and a teacher with the improbable name Blu Rain (Paula Patton) becomes a kind of surrogate mother. (At least she wasn't named Blu Ray, but then again, the film is set in 1987.)
Ms. Rain is in a long line of movie "teachers-who-just-won't-give-up," and her angelic gumption is the movie's most conventional trope. Compare her with Mo'Nique's Mary, who is like no one else I've seen in the movies. This monster is fiercely, intensely human, which only serves to heighten the monstrousness. Known as a bawdy comic, Mo'Nique once again proves the truism that comic actors have the ready-made chops for drama. (Think of Bette Midler in "The Rose.")
Mary is unfathomable, and when she delivers her big self-justifying monologue at the end to Precious's social worker (an almost unrecognizably dour Mariah Carey), she only seems more so. Mo'Nique doesn't go in for a lot of special pleading. She plays it hard right to the finish, so much so that the upbeat addendum that closes out the film seems, unintentionally, like a good-time fantasia.
Precious moves from a girl who refers to herself as "ugly black grease to be washed from the street" to a young woman who becomes the mother she never had. In the rush of overheated praise for this movie's power, would I be a spoilsport to ask what the sequel might look like? From the looks of it, Precious is en route to "Oprah." Grade: B+ (Rated R for child abuse including sexual assault, and pervasive language.)