A film review by Craig J. Koban February 3, 2010

Rank:  #2


2009, R, 109 mins.


Precious: Gabourey Sidibe / Mary: Mo'Nique / Ms. Rain: Paula Patton / Nurse John: Lenny Kravitz / Ms. Weiss: Mariah Carey / Cornrows: Sherri Shepherd

Directed by Lee Daniels / Written by Geoffrey Fletcher, based on the novel Push by Sapphire

If you exclude the film’s exasperatingly long-winded title, PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL “PUSH” BY SAPPHIRE is a drama of unflinching rawness, shockingly raw social commentary, and a portal into the deplorable underbelly of those that live on the far fringes of society.  I have often commented that the great, masterful films work as out-of-body experiences: they transport viewers to different times and places and let us view into the lives of people we may, under normal circumstances, never cross paths with.  PRECIOUS, on those levels, is a masterpiece of immersing audience members into its appalling urban nightmare.  It’s moving, transfixing, harrowing, and frequently traumatizing; even the coldest-at-heart filmgoers will not come out of this film unscathed.   

PRECIOUS is a relentlessly depressing film at times and is an oftentimes sickening portrayal of one young teenage girl’s hopeless existence in a world of chronic debasement, physical and verbal abuse, and the unavoidable truth that no family member truly loves her.  The way that the film's director, Lee Daniels (who made a name for himself producing the stirring and provocative MONSTERS BALL) courageously approaches PRECIOUS’ polarizing and shocking material is to be commended: He thrusts viewers head first into the film’s late 1980’s, impoverished inner city environment and never looks back.  

There are times when even the implacable critic in me was deeply distressed and terrified by the onslaught of social atrocities presented here, but no matter how distressing and demoralizing PRECIOUS is, it's a marvel to behold for its artifice: it contains performances of such deeply felt and penetrating naturalism and intrepid direction of such exhilarating, never-look-back confidence that it’s impossible to react negatively to the film’s craft.  More importantly, as heartbreaking and distressing as the film is, the most important element of its main themes is hope; hope that a young woman that is spat on by the ones that she should rely on the most will rise above it all to embrace a self-actualized person within her.  Alas, such discoveries are not made without huge emotional costs, as far too many sugary and shamelessly manipulative inspirational dramas fall to embellish. 

I have never seen such a anguished and abused teen character in a feature film before:  “Precious” Jones (played by an extraordinary newcomer, Gabourey Sidibe, more on her later) is an illiterate, morbidly obese, and poor 16-year-old African America girl that has virtually no hopes for a brighter future.   Her daily existence is nothing short of a living hell: She resides in a deplorable slum tenement with her mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), a woman that hurtles insults, fists, and objects at her daughter with the ferocity of a slave master.  Mary is a reprehensible parental persona of limitless contempt: she is unemployed, remains at home all day and night where she drinks, eats, and watches TV, and when he daughter returns home from school she lashes out four and twelve letter prefaced insults and tirades on her that would make longshoremen cringe.  When she is not barking orders at Precious to make her food, fill her drink cup, or pick up her welfare check, she still manages to find the time to sexually abuse her when the moment presents itself. 

As for Precious’ father?  He apparently is even more of a grotesque fiend.  He has managed, in the past, to viciously beat and rape her not once, but twice and has nauseatingly fathered two children with her as a result (as the film opens she is pregnant with the second).  The first incest-spawned baby has severe Down Syndrome and is so depressingly unable to perform basic motor functions and speak that she is constantly referred to as “Mongo”by Mary (she also deplorably uses the pathetic child as a prop whenever social services comes her way).  Precious is always tormented by the memories of the nights when her father forced himself upon her, but she frequently escapes (throughout the most dire times in the film) to fantasies concocted in her mind, which portray her as famous, glamorous, and loved.   Precious' voice over track during these MTV-inspired dream interludes only further establishes not only her lofty hopes and dreams, but her inner turmoil and body disturbance issues: “I wish I had a light-skinned boyfriend with real nice hair.  And I want to be on a cover of a magazine.  But first I want to be in one of those BET videos.”  At one sad moment she looks in the mirror and her reflection is a young, skinny, Caucasian blond woman.  The fantasies she creates are the only places where she is revered or given any consideration. 

After the discovery of Precious’ second pregnancy, she is abruptly suspended from school, but her junior high principle does see potential in her to better herself.  As a result, she arranges to have her attend an alternative school for learning in hopes that a new environment will act as a springboard for positive change.  Although her first few days in her new school are troublesome and awkward, Precious discovers a new ally and friend in Ms. Rain (Paula Patton, beautiful, exquisitely tender and sincere here) who displays a genuine regard for her students' well-being during times when no one else in their lives will.  Of course, Precious’ mother vehemently detests her daughter trying to further her book smarts, seeing as she routinely decrees to her that she is fat, ugly, hopeless, and has no chance of anything other than a welfare payday.  Fortunately, Precious’ strong bond with her new teacher and her social worker, Mrs. Weiss (an utterly unrecognizable Mariah Carey, totally shredding away her glitzy pop culture diva façade in spades here), but things get very disconcerting when she gradually reveals to Weiss the nature of her two babies and her overall relationship to her mother.  After Precious finally gives birth to her boy she also has to deal with the horrendous news regarding her father that could mean the death sentence to both her and her newborn.   

PRECIOUS – which was adapted by Geoffrey Fletcher from the award winning 1996 novel PUSH by Sapphire, a former teacher – is the kind of film that THE BLIND SIDE desperately needed to be.  That Sandra Bullock feel-good feature also dealt with an African American teen character that tried to rescue himself from the appalling and destitute landscape of street life.  Both PRECIOUS and THE BLIND SIDE deal with adolescent characters that are not loved nor nurtured by their biological families and, as a result, they must find a conduit deep within their own souls to liberate themselves from their unforgiving realities.  Yet, what left such an odious taste in my mouth from THE BLIND SIDE was how little attention it gave to the Michael Oher character, the real hero of the film, and instead it aggravatingly wasted time propping up his rich, do-no-wrong, evangelical foster parents as the real champions of change (the film’s inverse racism with its focus was more than fleeting).  THE BLIND SIDE felt like pure Hollywood-concocted, audience-placating make-believe compared to the brutally uncompromising situation that its title character is established in.   Daniel’s fly-on-the wall treatment and presentation of the calamitous and nightmarish daily ordeals that his main character suffers through is brewed with such a spontaneous and undaunted veracity: he is not afraid to go down any potentially traumatizing avenue (which makes the film breathe with the realism of a documentary at times).  THE BLIND SIDE, by comparison, was too taken away with whitewashing its potentially dark material for the benefit of securing a large, PG friendly audience. 

Also liberating is how much PRECIOUS does not succumb to stale and overused inspirational-movie-of-the-week formulas and conventions that, again, THE BLIND SIDE fell victim to at every moment.  PRECIOUS has ample moments that are both heart wrenching and inevitably rousing, but this is a film that makes its audience work overtime for its feel-good sentiment.  I’ve seen so many countless films about underprivileged urban kids trying to make something of their hopeless lives, often to the point where the manipulation of their plots can be seen from a proverbial mile away.  PRECIOUS never once contrives or takes short cuts for a “happy” ending, nor does it resort to deceitful bait and switch tactics to please audiences.  This is a dire film about dire circumstances involving dire characters and even when the underdog does indeed free herself, she still faces unquestionable personal odds and barriers, and the way the film grounds itself in such a tangible verisimilitude is its finest trait. 

The performances here are as astonishingly assured as any you are likely to see in 2009.  Sidibe was chosen over 300 girls during casting calls and despite the fact that she had no formal acting training prior to filming, her performance is miraculous in how well she embodies the introverted trauma that her character deals with everyday.  She is a massive shell of a human being, with an inexpressive face that hides her real feelings while simultaneously revealing volumes about her mental state: it’s one of the most startling debut performances ever.  Also brilliant are Paula Patton as the teacher (showing a level-headed and gentle mercy without repressing to inner city teacher stereotypes) and Mariah Carey, who remarkably creates such a beleaguered authenticity with her social worker role.  She’s as much of a pure revelation as Sidibe is, and the way Carey commands a quite spoken, but inwardly powerful presence is one of the film’s masterful coups.  This is not one iota of her glossy singing persona here.

And then there is Mo’Nique, a stand-up comedian that may have trouble making people laugh at her again with the way she completely invests herself in her morally reprehensible character.  Mary just may go down in movie history as one of the most loathsome and demonical paternal figures ever committed to screen.  It would be easy to see a lesser actress build this character to the point of lame and grotesque caricature, but Mo’Nique not only thoroughly creates a figure of repugnant hostility, but also hints at the warped and damaged inner psyche of this deeply unstable woman.    In one of the most memorable verbal standoff scenes I recall, Mo’Nique’s Mary feebly tries to relay to Carey’s social worker why she allowed her husband to sexually accost her infant daughter and how that action hurt her more than her daughter; the way Mo’Nique conveys this woman’s eerie disregard for Precious while wearing a pathetic veil of false sincerity is haunting. At this moment in the film your rooting interest in Precious to emancipate herself fully from this malicious creature is at its highest, and if you make it to this point in the film and follow through to its ambiguous, but hopeful, conclusion, then you’ll find yourself touched and stirred in ways that few mainstream dramas do. 

  H O M E