There is nothing precious about the movie “Precious”. Nothing twee or frivolous. If the word “heartbreaking” hadn’t already existed in the English language it might have been invented to describe the story of Clareece “Precious” Jones an inner city NYC kid with big problems.
“Precious” is about the power of the educational system to help lift a person up from adversity but it is much more than just an inspirational teacher movie. It’s a movie about victims—one who transcends and one who doesn’t. “To Sir with Love” this isn’t.
Set in 1987 Harlem it follows the progress of “Precious” Jones, a pregnant, overweight and illiterate sixteen year old. She lives with her welfare mother Mary (Mo’Nique) in a rundown apartment where she lives a life of constant mental, physical and sexual abuse. “I’ll be OK,” says Precious. “I’m always looking up… looking for a piano to fall. There’s always something in my way.”
The only thing that keeps her on an even keel is her rich inner life, but even that is filled with self hate. When she looks in the mirror she imagines a skinny, pretty blonde girl staring back at her. Despite her big dreams she feels people regard her and her family as “black grease that needs to be wiped away.” The one bright spot in her life is Ms. Rain (Paula Patton) a supportive alternative school teacher. With her encouragement Precious may find a way out of her hellish situation.
“Precious” is one of the most grueling movie experiences of the year. It transports the viewer to an uncomfortably down-and-dirty world were pain and anguish are the price of admission. Hope, for Precious, is a dim light at the end of a very long tunnel but director Lee Daniels keeps the movie from being an exercise in viewer self flagellation with pitch perfect (and unexpected) casting and a sure narrative hand.
Cast wise the most surprising element to “Precious” is a career making performance from comedian Mo’Nique in a decidedly non-comedic role. Best known for parts in low budget comedies like Soul Plane and Beerfest she shows a dramatic side here as Mary, a vicious mother and welfare scammer.
Who would have imagined her (potentially) Oscar worthy scene would be opposite Mariah Carey? Carey’s work as a tough-as-nails social worker should erase all the ill will her “performance” in “Glitter” earned, and who knows, maybe she’ll be able to add an acting prize to her Grammy shelf come awards time.
At the center of it all is first timer Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe in the title role. She pulls off a difficult portrayal, making it believable; giving Precious the dignity she needs to survive and shows some real backbone in a character who could easily have been a cliché.
“Precious” is filled with disturbing imagery—incest and abuse—although when the going gets tough, mercifully, the screen often fades to black, but not always, and that is one of the strengths of the film. It doesn’t back away from the real life horror of Precious’s life. It’s bleak yes, but compelling.