By Don Simpson | November 16, 2009
Director: Lee Daniels
Writer(s): Sapphire (novel), Geoffrey Fletcher (screenplay)
Starring: Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz
Set in Harlem, Precious is the heart-wrenching tale of Clareece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) – an obese, illiterate, abused and molested 16-year-old African-American girl. Impregnated for the second time by her otherwise absentee father, Precious is expelled from high school; but her principal, who recognizes Precious’ true potential, refers her to an alternative school (Each One Teach One) with an intimate student-to-teacher ratio and teachers and counselors who are appropriately trained to work with troubled students.
As things improve at school, matters at home spin ferociously out of control. Precious’ welfare queen mother (Mo’Nique) has relentlessly treated her as a slave and a human punching bag; but the abuse escalates ten-fold once Precious brings her second child home from the hospital. (Her first “Lil Mongo” has Down syndrome and lives with Precious’ grandmother – that is, except for when welfare comes for a visit.)
We know that Precious does not want to follow in her mother’s footsteps – she frequently escapes to another life in daydreams in which fanaticizes about wearing fancy clothes and dancing and being happy. Precious is an amazing young woman with an unyielding desire to break out of her hellish predicament – she is the victim of practically every bad thing that could ever happen to a person. There are several occasions that one would expect Precious to give up; but no matter how bad things get, her strength and tenacity shine through. This is a story of perseverance and hope. The moral is: if Precious can succeed in life, why can’t you? Daniels seems to be daring the viewer to claim that their life is worse than Precious’.
Being that the content of the film is so dense with the stereotypical problems of the ghetto (drugs, incest, rape, abuse, welfare queens, Down Syndrome, HIV/AIDS) and director Lee Daniels opts to portray the images in such an unreal fashion (with over-saturated yellows, oranges and reds interjected with wildly lavish dream sequences), one might expect Precious to click her heels three times while saying “there’s no place like home” and suddenly she returns to Kansas. Precious is essentially a hyper-real fantasy (albeit of hell), in which everything from the characters to the plot to the visuals are exaggerated to the point that all of this could only exist in the world of Hollywood. It is also worth noting that the source material (Sapphire’s 1996 novel Push) was also criticized by many for being exaggerated and overburdened with stereotypes of situations and personas.
Watching Daniels’ film, I continued to dream of a film that was much more toned-down than Precious, maybe even shot on gritty black and white 16mm film stock (ala Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep) – something ripe with realism and honest to the world that it is attempting to represent. Instead, Precious is purely a work of fiction; an emotional rollercoaster (a tear-jerker, if you will) and true Hollywood fodder – and with Oprah’s seal of approval the possibilities are endless.
Many critics are already predicting that Sidibe and Mo’Nique will be strong contenders during the awards season. Sidibe’s portrayal of Precious, with a blank expression and a glimmer of intense curiosity sparkling in her eyes, is enough to moisten one’s eye sockets. The events unfolding around Precious seem to build and intensify inside her, yet she rarely shows the pain on the outside. Sidibe simply exemplifies restraint while being Precious; while Mo’Nique’s gripping performance as Mary Jones (Precious’ mother) is the polar opposite, yet no less worthy of praise. All of the rage and intensity becomes her – Monique plays Mary Jones as the crazed loose cannon that she truly is.