Hard to recommend a movie where the protagonist is damned in hopelessness, but there must be reason to justify Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire and so there is. Simply put, it is one of the most moving artistic achievements of the year. Now is where it is hard to find a way to inspire you to watch it. For one, it is clear that director Lee Daniels has found ways to counter-measure its darkness by interspersing grace and acts of kindness into a bleak story.
The title character (played wrenchingly by Gabourey Sidibe) is a very obese 16-year old girl from Harlem who is told early on she can no longer attend high school after it is learned she is pregnant with her second child, both of them conceived out of consent. The school administrator expels her but makes a house visit to inform her that she can go to a private school for girls with special needs. On route she meets a social worker (Mariah Carey, de-glammed) and a teacher (Paula Patton) with infinite patience and willingness to make sure Precious gets the attention and tending that she needs. The girl can barely write or read. She barely musters the desire to speak, often living in her own silent and withdrawn world.
Precious’ home life is a nightmare dwelling, lit in dank yellow light and swathed in deteriorating wallpaper. She’s hectored constantly by her mother Mary (Mo’Nique) with a daily duty to cook dinner for her. And re-cook another meal if the first one is wrong. The abusiveness goes beyond, including multiple scenes of Mom throwing things at Precious’ head. This is where it must be said that Mo’Nique, stretching from broad comedies like “Phat Girlz” and “Soul Plane,” is a towering, monstrous presence. Her performance is perhaps the equal of the great Robert DeNiro performance of “This Boy’s Life” in which DeNiro also played an abusive stepfather.
One of the film’s elemental and uncompromising pledges is to make the Mom as oppressive, narcissistic and abusive as possible. By establishing this within Mo’Nique’s first scene, you root for Precious to gain the courage to transcend her mother. She is only 16-years old but for her benefit, and ours, she must find a way to succeed which means moving out of the house and finding a life of independence.
Asking that much of a 16-year old is, of course, a lot. You wonder to what lengthy degrees Mrs. Weiss and Ms. Rain, the social worker and teacher, are going to be able to help her. Mom wants her daughter strapped because her welfare checks depends on it. The film tracks Precious’ gathering awareness of where to search for autonomy.
But for every new discovery, such as the joy of being able to write a page in a journal and make it sound literate, Precious faces setbacks and hardships that faze her. Precious’ mentor and girlfriend support is there to help inspire her. She finally makes the awful, but desperate, confession of what kind of abuse she has endured at home. Mom the tyrant is always around the corner to make attempts to weaken and suffocate her own daughter, that’s an obstacle that won’t go away too easy.
When Precious is smacked with her worst difficulties, director Daniels creates pop fantasy sequences to demonstrate how this girl uses her mind to escape. Rarely have fantasy sequences worked so well in a movie – there’s one heartbreaking moment where Precious sees herself in the mirror as a thin Caucasian blonde. Here is a girl that uses fantasies as a crutch, a solace retreat, the only place where she live grandiosely and without judgment. There is nothing wrong with them for Precious, if that is what comforts her. But Daniels knows this is also the story of a girl who learns to live in reality, and how to survive among people. Not needing to live in withdrawal is the film’s first catharsis.
109 Minutes. Rated R.
DARK DRAMA / LATE TEENS AND ADULTS / SELF-REFLECTIVE VIEWING
Film Cousins: “Mask” (1985); “Vagabond” (1986, France); “Lucas” (1986); “Show Me Love” (1998, Sweden).