Lee Daniels’ Precious, a hit with critics upon release in 2009, is a hard-hitting (and extremely moving) dramatic examination of the life of a troubled teenager living in late 1980s Harlem. Based on the novel Push by Sapphire, the story is centred around obese 16-year-old Clarice “Precious” Jones (the excellent Gabourey Sidibe, remarkably in her first professional acting role), and her struggle to free herself from the mental and physical abuse regularly dished out by her parents.
Precious lives with her mean, manipulative and domineering mother Mary (Mo’Nique, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance) in a New York tenement building. Mary is unemployed, lazy, and forces Precious to act as her servant through a mix of emotional blackmail and outright violence, ordering her to carry out all of the cooking, cleaning and other household chores. We learn early on that Precious is pregnant for the second time; the father of the baby – and also the father of the first child – is Mary’s long-term partner Carl (Rodney Jackson), who also happens to be Precious’ abusive father. Carl routinely rapes Precious in full view of a jealous Mary, who does nothing to intervene; it is revealed much later in the film that Carl has AIDS.
While this grim scenario is slowly (and explicitly) played out on screen, we also see plenty of Precious’s struggle to stay within the education system; after being expelled from her school due to the second pregnancy, she decides to attend an alternative educational programme entitled “Each One / Teach One” and works to improve her literacy under the guidance of new teacher, Blu Rain (Paula Patton). Meanwhile, in tandem with her educational progress, the birth of her second child and her health concerns, she visits social worker Ms Weiss (Mariah Carey), and tries to free herself from her mother’s tyrannical clutches.
Precious received a heavy promotional push by one of Daniels’ co-producers, Oprah Winfrey, and it certainly arrived in UK cinemas with a degree of hyperbolic praise wafting over from the US. Some of this praise (though not all of it) was well-deserved, most notably with regard to the acting. Gabourey Sidibe is superb in the main role, a giant presence on screen in every sense of the phrase. Her performance is one of focused, barely-relenting intensity, and she is more than ably-supported by the rest of the cast. Mo’Nique is a deserving Academy Award winner as the monstrous, bitter Mary, and a plainly-dressed, make-up-free Mariah Carey is great in her few scenes as the cynical, unflinching social worker. The 10 minute-long penultimate scene, involving all three but mainly focusing on a confrontational conversation between Weiss and Mary, is as good as you will see anywhere – magnificently scripted, gripping drama with tremendous acting on show. While Carey and Mo’Nique are used to performing, their work is usually undertaken in vastly different circumstances, but they both excel here and should be rightly proud of their contributions to the film.
There are flaws with Precious, though, and the main one is the way the tone shifts in an odd and drastic fashion on a number of occasions. The movie includes several semi-uplifting fantasy sequences that see the daydreaming Precious appear as a gospel singer / dancer / celebrity. While these are perfectly understandable, and its duly understood that the character should be enjoying flights-of-fancy aspirations at her age, they do jar awkwardly next to the film’s tough, uncompromising portrayal of abuse. Given Daniels’ film is an extremely gritty drama, it seems like the wrong choice to segue in-and-out of these fantasies with special effects and vaguely cartoonish comic devices, however inventive they are. (In one scene, after Precious is knocked to the floor on the street by a young boy, she dreams she is dancing with a lover who seductively licks her ear; she wakes to find a dog licking her face. While there is often humour to be found in the deepest tragedy, this just doesn’t seem like the time or place for a weak sight gag.)
In the director’s defence, for the most part Daniels keeps these lighter moments in check. The brutally violent scenes set at the teenager’s home are both incredibly gripping and difficult to sit through. I found myself flinching and looking away a couple of times. One of the more harrowing sequences sees Precious arrive home after giving birth to second child Abdul, only for Mary to instantly start ordering her around and throwing objects at her, before deliberately dropping the newborn baby on the floor. A vicious fight ensues in which every blow is keenly felt; a depressing but magnificent piece of cinema.
Geoffrey S. Fletcher’s screenplay of Sapphire’s novel leaves the key question to the end, namely: what has happened to Mary to make her so evil? Here is a character that at one point saw fit to name her only daughter “Precious”, but treats her in an opposite way at all times. I found myself waiting and waiting and waiting for this to be addressed, and I feared at one point that it wouldn’t be, but without giving much away the film brings things to a neat, believable conclusion and ends on a welcome positive note.
The abusive father, Carl, only appears in one uncomfortable scene early on that depicts incestual rape, and I think this is a really good decision. His threatening presence is accentuated by the lack of screen time for the character; if the rape wasn’t bad enough in itself, the fact he doesn’t appear again lends him a nightmarish persona, and he is spoken of in hushed tones by Precious and Mary. The film’s focus is squarely on motherhood, and the relationships formed (or not, as the case may be) between women; men are largely absent and the only other male character with any kind of substantial presence is a nurse played by Lenny Kravitz. It’s no coincidence that his particular job is, traditionally, a female occupation – a point that is clumsily made via gentle ribbing from Precious’s classmates.
The school scenes set in Blu Rain’s classroom are a little cheesy at times. At first we see a small class filled with troubled, unruly teenagers, but all-too-quickly Precious’s own educational progress is underscored by the sudden disappearance of disruptive antics by the other pupils. The mouthy kids are soon gazing adoringly at their teacher, hooked on every word, and it all seems a little too convenient. It would surely take more than a museum visit to turn some of these kids around, but at 109 minutes there’s not enough time to go into too much depth. Sadly these classroom scenes feel a little too generic, not all that far removed from an episode of Degrassi Junior High or even the much triter Dangerous Minds, just with a few added expletives. This certainly doesn’t ruin the film, but it is noticeable in comparison to the hardness found elsewhere in Precious, or indeed the fourth season of The Wire, which has much more time to examine Baltimore’s school system in great detail.
Demographics (shudder) are all important in this day and age, and as a middle-class white English male, I doubt very much that I’d be anywhere near this film’s target audience. However, I’m extremely glad I decided to watch it; though it has its faults, at its core there’s a hard, believable and superbly-acted social drama that will move any viewer, regardless of their background. Precious feels much more valuable than most other modern releases, and will force anyone who watches it to reflect on society’s ills long after the credits have finished rolling. Most of us will also be thankful for vastly different upbringings to the mainly-fictional one created by Lee Daniels, his cast and crew and the writers.
Directed by: Lee Daniels
Written by: Geoffrey S. Fletcher, from a novel by Sapphire
Starring: Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Mariah Carey, Paula Patton
Running Time: 109 Minutes