The glass isn’t even half full
Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, inner-city horror-drama, rated R, Regal DeVargas, 3 chiles
How many times when you’ve been having a bad day has someone said to you, “Cheer up! Things could be worse”? As obnoxious as it sounds, that platitude is often true. But for Claireece Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), it might not be. The poor, illiterate, and obese black teen lives in Harlem with her mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), a couch potato who emotionally and physically abuses her daughter every chance she gets, even though Precious cooks, cleans, and waits on her hand and foot. When Precious’ drug-addicted father bothers to shows his face at home, he rapes her; the result is that she is pregnant with her second child by him. Their first has severe Down syndrome and lives with Precious’ grandmother, though this doesn’t stop Mary from using the child to beef up her welfare check. Though she’s 16, Precious is still in middle school, and she’s about to be kicked out. Luckily, her concerned principal pays her a late-night visit to tell her about an alternative school called Each One Teach One, where Precious might be able to pursue her GED.
Precious is based on a novel (which the film’s clunky title will never let us forget) published in 1996. Author Sapphire has said that she created the character of Precious as an amalgam of young women she encountered while working as a literacy teacher in Harlem and the Bronx. The novel was adapted for the screen by first-time screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher and directed by Lee Daniels (who directed 2005’s Shadowboxer and was a producer of Monster’s Ball). Precious won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, has already garnered a best-picture nomination from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (not to mention nods for several of the performers), and is bound to rack up more nominations and accolades as awards season gets going in earnest.
It’s a good, sometimes great, movie. To its credit, Precious resists the Hollywood temptation to wrap itself up in a neat little package topped with a pretty, shiny bow. It doesn’t have a happy ending. But just because a movie is sad, sentimental, or brutally frank, that doesn’t mean it’s great.
Precious is noteworthy for painting an unflinchingly lurid picture of inner-city America in the 1980s and for having a protagonist who is poor, overweight, black, and a teenage single mother. But Daniels seems too determined to shove ugliness in our faces, ham-handedly juxtaposing rape scenes and greasy meat boiling in a pan, for example. While the conditions of Precious’ life are certainly horrifying, the film felt more instructional and preachy than genuinely engaging and moving. By heaping together poverty, obesity, child abuse, illiteracy, rape, incest, teen pregnancy, Down syndrome, and AIDS, the film started to seem like a new type of horror movie.
Precious wouldn’t succeed were it not for the superior performances. Newcomer Sidibe is sweet and subtle. Though the characters of her classmates felt a little overly stereotypical, Jo Ann (Xosha Roquemore), Rhonda (Chyna Layne), Consuelo (Angelic Zambrana), Jermaine (Amina Robinson), and Rita (Stephanie Andujar) provide many of the film’s welcome moments of levity. Pretty Paula Patton shoulders a role we’ve seen umpteen times before— the beautiful teacher in an inner-city school— and she does the best she can with lines that sound borrowed from the script of an after-school special. Several nonactor celebrities make appearances as well— among them Lenny Kravitz as a handsome, caring maternity-ward nurse and Mariah Carey as the New York social worker who handles Precious’ case— though they’re all so utterly deglammed that you might not recognize them. Daniels doesn’t let Kravitz and Carey coast along on star quality; he requires them to act, and the result is impressive. As Precious’ vile monster of a mother, Mo’Nique gives a bone-chilling performance and nearly runs away with the movie. Director of photography Andrew Dunn uses bright spots of color and dramatic lighting (or lack thereof) to suggest glimmers of hope in the darkness.
The film also succeeds by running on the ideas of perseverance and hope rather than on syrupy upbeat optimism. Nearly everyone thinks Precious is worthless— those who bother to acknowledge her existence in the first place, that is— and they tell her so. Yet she taps into a flickering notion that she is worthwhile. She may not ever be the glamorous movie star she dreams of being, but at least she can make a life for herself and her children. If the film has a message, it’s that anyone can cultivate a sense of self-worth and carry on. It’s about surviving, even in the face of horrible, insurmountable circumstances. In the end, Precious reminded me of a line from a song by the late musician Warren Zevon, who admitted, “I’d rather feel bad than feel nothing at all.”
I will survive: Gabourey Sidibe
To ma’am with love: Gabourey Sidibe, left, and Paula Patton