Starring: Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey
Director: Lee Daniels
Screenwriter: Geoffrey Fletcher
Clareece Prescious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is a black, obese, illiterate 16-year-old who’s pregnant with her second child, both from her own father, the first with Down’s Syndrome. This may sound like an extreme. And perhaps it is. Yet perhaps it is the story of more people than we all are willing to admit. For those with any inkling of understanding of inner-city life, the welfare system, and the scarring physical and psychological damage that’s inflicted upon children every day understands that though the picture may be bleak, and may seem like an extreme, it nonetheless represents one dark aspect of our human society. True, the extremism of her situation does not afflict every single person of the inner-city. That does not stop the themes that surround her from afflicting a great many of them. Lee Daniels’ Precious is a bleak film that’s flawlessly acted, powerful, and yet slightly marred by direction and camera work that, at times, doesn’t quite know what it wants.
As the film begins, Precious explains that she wishes she was thin, and had a light-skinned boyfriend, and that she was a star on MTV. Those are her dreams, and she understands that they are just that: dreams. It doesn’t stop her from having them. She gets called to the principle’s office, where the principal confronts her about being pregnant for a second time. She goes home, where she’s confronted with her mother, Mary, played here with a vicious monstrousness in one of the best performances of the year by Mo’Nique. While at home, having frying pans thrown at her and a slew of swears, insults, and put-downs thrown with them, the principal rings at the door, and suggests Precious go to an alternative school. Despite her mother’s brutal insistence that she ignore her education because she’s a “stupid black bitch” and won’t ever amount to anything, and that she should instead go and get on welfare like herself, Precious goes to the alternative school. There she meets Miss Blue Rain (Paula Patton), and a small classroom of inner-city girls, all trying to get their GEDs.
If there’s one flaw beside some wonky camera work, it’s that the film is, for the most part, predictable. The trailers for it don’t lie in what it’s willing to offer. They just don’t tell you quite how dark some of it can be. What I can say is that the film also contains spots of humor. Daniels, if he understands one thing, it’s seeing the humor within the dark material, so that if the viewer is willing to look at the film as more than just a hopelessly dark drama, they can see that certain things are funny; the way Precious hits people when she’s mad, for example. Sure, she’s acting out internal issues that she holds, but that doesn’t stop the act from being funny. The same goes for Precious’ fantasies. The ones that work are humorous, despite the fact that they’re obviously Precious’ way to escape difficult situations, such as being raped by her father.
The film is one of the best acted films of 2009. Every person hits their marks. That’s true for the supporting cast (the girls in the classroom, Paula Patton and Mariah Carey as a social worker), but especially true for Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’Nique. Their scenes together are some of the most difficult to watch, but at the same time they are the best scenes of the film, because we see two actresses who know their characters so well that they never once miss a beat. It’s amazing to me that this comes from an an actress who’s never acted (Sidibe) and one whom I’ve never seen do any kind of dramatic work before (Mo’Nique). I only wish such powerful performances came around more often. Yet for as well as Sidibe does with Precious, Mo’Nique steals the show. She’s one of the most ruthlessly horrible mothers I have ever seen put to screen, and she deserves every single award that comes her way.
As I said, at times the camera work and directing get confusing. They’re not as tightly focused as one would want. They take flourishes that don’t need to be there, cuts that seem superfluous, and shakey-cam syndrome that could use some help. I suppose it’s a true testament to the power of the performances that this didn’t get to me as much as it might have in an otherwise more mediocre film.
Precious isn’t for everyone, I don’t think. It’s very hard to watch at times, and it doesn’t satisfy in the way the trailers make it seem. But I can’t ignore the merits that it holds for those willing to take the journey. If you’re looking for a straightforward resolution, I don’t think this is for you, because like life, there are no straightforward resolutions.