When I tell people how good this movie is — and I can’t shut up about it — they flash me the stink eye. As in “Yeah, right, like I need to sink into a depression coma for two hours watching a fat, illiterate, HIV-positive Harlem girl get knocked up (twice) by her daddy, brutally battered by her mother and laughed at by a world eager to pound abuse on her 16-year-old ass.”
Won’t you dickheads be surprised. Precious, saddled with a clumsy subtitle — Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire — tunnels inside your head, leaves you moved like no film in years and then lifts you up in ways you don’t see coming. Despite the pain at the story’s core, the movie has a spirit that soars. Claireece “Precious” Jones, played by Gabourey Sidibe, 24, in an astounding debut that brims with grit and amazing grace, digs aspiration out of buried dreams. I don’t know how director Lee Daniels works his magic. But once Precious gets its hooks into you, no way is it letting go.
In adapting the 1996 novel by the poet Sapphire, a former teacher, Daniels and the gifted screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher don’t skimp on the squalor. The year is 1987, and when the pregnant Precious isn’t stealing fried chicken or ducking punches from Mary (Mo’Nique), the mom from hell, she’s barely coping with ninth grade and caring for Little Mongo, her Down-syndrome child whom couch potato Mary tolerates only for the value of her welfare checks.
No wonder Precious has fantasies of walking red carpets and seeing herself as a skinny blond supermodel. Her real future is all dead ends until she is transferred to an alternative school. A teacher, Blu Rain (Paula Patton, with a spirit to match her loveliness), brings her up to speed on getting a GED and penetrates the blank expression the girl wears like armor. The school scenes dodge the dull virtues of TV formula. Ms. Rain’s lesbianism keeps even her on the outside. And the receptionist (a feisty Sherri Shepherd) knows that it takes sweat to erect a comfort zone. The Precious support system consists of Nurse John (an excellent Lenny Kravitz) and Ms. Weiss (the de-glittered Mariah Carey is a revelation), a social worker who knows the roots of Precious’ problems.
That would be with Mary, a mother who hurls abuse and blunt instruments and then flops in front of the tube to gorge on pigs’ feet and her own bile. The role could have been a caricature of cruelty, but Mo’Nique — a stand-up comic with real acting chops — refuses to play her the easy way. This monster has her reasons, shocking though they are. There is one word for Mo’Nique: dynamite. She tears up the screen and then, in a climactic scene with Precious and Ms. Weiss, tears at your heart. If Oscar has a sure thing this year, Mo’Nique is it.
Still, it’s Precious who keeps pulling us in. Daniels — with the help of cinematographer Andrew Dunn, editor Joe Klotz and a knockout song by Mary J. Blige expressing the goal of Precious to see the world in color — makes sure of that. As the producer of Monster’s Ball and The Woodsman and the director of the flawed but potent Shadowboxer, the openly gay Daniels knows what it’s like to cut himself on barbed-wire topics. His fearlessness here is staggering. Daniels throws a lot at us, heedless of consistency, structure and tone. For that reason, Precious will be patronized as much as it is praised. Cynics typically rip anything that wears its heart on its sleeve. Sorry, haters, Precious is an emotional powerhouse, a triumph of bruising humor and bracing hope that deserves its place among the year’s best films.
As for Precious, she will never be a stranger to hard knocks, and no longer will she be a stranger to herself. Look in Sidibe’s eyes as she takes Precious to the next step. She’s glorious. And the movie is with her every scary and sublime step of the way.