The first 20 minutes of “Precious” – the full title of which is “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” – are so intense and pitched so high, you may not feel like sticking it out.
My advice: Stick it out. This is an exceptional film about nearly unendurable circumstances, endured. You will come out the other side of it a markedly enriched filmgoer.
Claireece “Precious” Jones is a teenager living in 1980s Harlem, raped by her barely glimpsed father, abused by her unfathomably cruel mother. Precious is illiterate but bright, and against her mother’s wishes she switches to an alternative school where, in a literacy workshop, she comes under the life-saving tutelage of Ms. Rain (Paula Patton).
The 16-year-old Precious has one child and another on the way, both by her own father. Her life becomes a mosaic of pain and promise, sunny skies and grief, with enough of an emotional impact to put a dent in the most jaded audience.
Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe plays Precious, and she is phenomenally expressive in her portrayal of a huge young woman shouldering a massive amount of adversity.
Actress/comedian Mo’Nique (“The Parkers”) plays the pivotal role of Precious’ vicious mother – Ronald Reagan’s nightmare vision of a “welfare queen” come to life. Mo’Nique is asked to do some pretty horrible things, but “Precious” keeps her character just this side of cardboard monstrosity.
And Mariah Carey – who knew the pop diva had such a good, honest, clean performance in her? She plays a social worker, and in a couple of lengthy interactions, Carey and Sidibe find common performance ground where you wouldn’t think any existed.
Director Lee Daniels allows himself the fantasy outlet of Precious’ imagination. When the sexual violence (or other kinds of violence) gets to be too much, she escapes into herself and we see her onscreen as she dreams herself to be: all dolled up on the fashion runway or attending some paparazzi-laden premiere.
Still, “Precious” is at its best when it spends time in the classroom, and when we get to know a host of tough, smart characters on their own terms.
It’s not an easy film to watch. But neither, for many reasons, is “Precious” easy to forget.