In Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, director Lee Daniels pulls off an improbable feat. Within a grim world in which the worst of human behavior frequently manifests itself, Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher (using Sapphire’s source material) have created an authentic testament to the enduring powers of hope and the human spirit’s capacity to overcome. They’ve done so thanks to a fiercely intelligent performance by newcomer Gabourey ‘Gabby’ Sidibe, a compassionate eye for the circumstances surrounding their protagonist’s upbringing and a narrative that depicts misery but refuses to wallow in it.
Teenager Clareece “Precious” Jones (Sidibe) has suffered tremendously in her life. Twice impregnated by her father, terribly abused by her monstrous mother (Mo’Nique) and subject to unending harassment for being overweight, it’s a wonder she finds the strength to wake up each morning. Yet, she does. And when a kind teacher at school recommends an alternative educational program for her, she enrolls and finds there the opportunity to escape the bonds of her tormented upbringing.
The story unfolds in the everyday reality of the Harlem, circa 1987, that Precious inhabits and within her complex headspace, into which she disappears at the worst moments. Daniels renders the former in withdrawn, gritty visual tones that contrast with the richer colors of her fantasies of glamour and superstardom. The choice, and the regular transitions between the two universes, adds a depth to the picture that sets it apart from other depictions of urban malaise.
Understanding Precious the person is the key to understanding Precious the movie and the likely reason it’s proved such an unqualified success, both on the film festival circuit and at the box office. There’s developed a standard form for cinematic depictions of life in a city’s mean neighborhoods that — in its addiction to a formula of gun violence, hot rides, half dressed women and hip-hop infused soundtracks — has transformed a serious subject into a stultifying, chic cliché. In this picture, Daniels forgoes such accouterments, instead turning his focus to an individual that’d ordinarily exist on the periphery of such fare, as the butt of jokes.
It’s not hyperbole to suggest that the very act of taking Precious, a 350 pound black girl, seriously enough to center a film on her is one of great courage. Movies about women are frequently preoccupied by superficial beauty, emphasizing the so-called desirable appearance promulgated by our consumerist popular culture. Yet, this picture never condescends to Precious or her miserable situation. She’s not there to be laughed at, and though the dramatics between her and her mother are taken to a spectacularly heightened place, they’re rooted in the truths of the traumas of abuse.
At its core, Precious tells the story of a girl we’ve been trained to ignore. She seems to have nothing going for her, having faced an impossibly difficult, joyless life. Yet, Sidibe lets us in and reveals something very different. The actress imbues the character with dignity and strength. She holds herself high, keeps her cool and masters the art of reacting silently, communicating much while saying little. She shows us an individual who refuses to be broken, a person capable of acts of remarkable goodness and caring, dedicated to making a better life for herself and her children. Beaten down by her circumstances but never defeated, Precious needs someone, or something, to unlock her gifts and set her free. When that happens, when she derives a small sliver of happiness from her mountain of despair, the triumph feels earned, in a powerful way.
The Upside: The movie regards its unusual protagonist with enormous sympathy and insight. Lead actress Gabourey Sidibe is terrific, and director Lee Daniels has real vision.
The Downside: Occasionally, the grim circumstances of main character Precious’ life are so extreme they enter the realm of the absurd.
On the Side: Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry have both lent their support to the film as executive producers, and, through Friday, Box Office Mojo’s statistics had the film’s box office take at almost $14 million, an amazing haul.