© 2009 Ray Wong
Compared to what Hollywood (studio or independent) has given us, Precious is a different kind of movie. It's a rare movie about inner-city life about a impoverish African-American girl that is both genuine and hard to watch.
Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) is a 16-year-old welfare child of Mary (Mo'Nique) living in Harlem. She's also pregnant with her second child, and is now flunking out of junior high school. Mary is abusive and negligent; she's using her daughter and granddaughter only for the welfare checks. Precious has to go behind her mother's back to go to an alternative school, trying to get her GED so she can get out of her personal hell.
At the alternative school, Precious meets a number of poor, under-educated girls just like her. Her English teacher, Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), discovers even though Precious has had good grades in junior high, she's practically illiterate. Ms. Rain encourages all the girls to read and write every day. Just when things start to look up for Precious, she has her baby son.
Eventually, Mary finds out what's going on and accuses Precious for ruining her life. Her abuse on the baby becomes the last straw for Precious, who walks out. With Ms. Rain's help, Precious moves into a halfway house and, within a year, she reaches a 6th grade reading level. Just when she thinks everything is going to be okay, her mother pays her a visit and delivers devastating news.
Precious is Gabourey Sidibe's (Yelling to the Sky) first feature. She's obviously green but her lack of acting experience may have been her biggest asset in the role of Precious. Sidibe comes off as extremely genuine and naive. Her character is stuck between a hellish reality and glamorous fantasies. Sidibe's understated performance makes us care for the character.
Mo'Nique (Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins) is wonderfully disturbing as Precious's mother. What's great about her performance is that she does not rely on the stereotypes -- sure, the character is a walking, talking stereotype of every negligent welfare mother, but Mo'Nique somehow gives the character depth. You want to hate Mary, but at the same time you feel sorry for her.
The supporting cast includes Paula Patton (Swing Vote) as Precious's kind teacher. Patton's beauty and elegance are distracting, however. Often she looks like she's just walked off a movie set instead of being a Harlem teacher. On the other hand, Mariah Carey (Tennessee) goes "ugly" to play the dowdy welfare worker. It's nice to see the singer-actress give an understated performance that is grounded in reality. Sherri Shepherd (Who's Your Caddy) has a small role as an alternative school administrator, while singer Lenny Kravitz (Novella) is amiable as a sympathetic nurse who befriends Precious. The "girls" are effectively portrayed by Stephanie Andujar, Chyna Layne, Amina Robinson, Xosha Roquemore, Angelic Zambrana, and Aunt Dot.
Geoffrey Fletcher works hard to adapt Sapphire's difficult novel and gives the character-driven story some kind of a plot. Still, plot is an abstract; the strength of the story is the characters, and their dysfunctional relationships. Except for the saintly Ms. Rain, every character is flawed and broken in some way. Fletcher keeps it real most of the time, and presents the fantasy elements as Precious's escape from her reality. He takes his time to peel away the layers and reveal more about the characters. Still, there are some scenes that are too abstract or up for interpretation. The subtlety could be difficult to decipher.
The story also touches on very difficult and disturbing subjects, including child abuse and incest. I applaud Sapphire for her unflinching descriptions of reality and Fletcher's uncompromising adaptation. And I applaud the actors for portraying these difficult roles and handling the horrific subject matters with honesty and dignity.
Lee Daniels's (Shadowboxer) direction is laid-back and almost documentary-like. He makes generous use of Precious's voice over, to give the story a deeply personal feel. He captures her bleak reality and existence without offering fantastical, unrealistic hope. He grounds the story and makes us understand how real these problems are, what kind of personal hell these young women are facing every day. What troubles me, however, is how the child abuse and incest go unchallenged and covered up for so long. Daniels does not offer any explanation or solutions. He simply presents the characters and their stories as realistic as he can.
Precious is not for everyone. It's slow and character-driven without a defined plot. It's difficult. It's depressing in many ways. But it also offers a realistic glimpse of a world that many people don't get to see, and gives a voice to these young women who are rarely heard. And that's precious.
Stars: Gabourey Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Sherri Shepherd, Lenny Kravitz, Stephanie Andujar, Chyna Layne
Director: Lee Daniels
Writers: Geoffrey Fletcher (based on Sapphire's novel)
MPAA Rating: R for child abuse, sexual assaults, and pervasive language
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 6
Editing – 7
Production – 8
Total – 7.4 out of 10