banner image

:: Precious

Set in the mid-1980’s, Precious is a searing drama rooted in graphic depictions of a life doomed to remain at the wrong end of the socio-economic ladder. Claireece ‘Precious’ Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is an illiterate, overweight 16 year-old black girl trapped in the suburban ghetto hell of New York’s mean streets. Already burdened by an imposing, attention-grabbing physicality that regularly draws derision from all sides, Precious endures much greater suffering at the hands of her poisonous, welfare-dependant mother Mary (Mo’Nique), a monstrous figure who constantly rains verbal and physical abuse down upon her. Precious seems like a figure of doom, her trauma having begun before she was even aware of her own consciousness. Systematically raped by a now-deceased father who was responsible for her unwanted first child, Precious is now pregnant by him again, a fact that provokes a twisted, insane jealousy from her mother.

From a vocational viewpoint, Precious’ outlook couldn’t be more dire until a teacher, genuinely concerned by her situation, suggests an alternative path. Though the notion of any form of schooling is considered senseless to her mother, Precious reluctantly signs up at a remedial school. It’s here that a glimmer of hope is extracted from the morass of her plight when the kindly Ms. Rain (Paula Patton) enters the frame. Used to working with troubled kids with equally demoralising social problems, Ms.Rain provides genuine hope for a life that needn’t always be undervalued and consigned to the garbage in the way Precious’ mother would prefer, clinging to government handouts to survive. Precious and the small group of young women in her class slowly form a bond after sessions aimed at laying bare their vulnerabilities and dreams for a better life. Slowly she evolves and though in small steps, Precious reluctantly allows others to show her what love and taking control of your own destiny really mean.

Despite the strong impression it makes initially, director Lee Daniels’ film isn’t an entirely successful adaptation of Sapphire’s book. It reveals an often uncomfortable mix of grim naturalism - with its confronting domestic abuse, painting Precious’ home life as something akin to a prison sentence - and wild, outrageous fantasy that often disturbs the narrative’s flow. In these gaudy, over-stylised inserts, Precious momentarily slips into fanciful daydreams of herself as an adored star, awash in the glittery glow of spotlights and flashing cameras, traipsing down red carpets whilst the masses clamor for her attention. These jarring, interspersed images are like a defense mechanism, her mind erecting fleeting, illusory barriers to fend off prickly real-life situations. They’re also symptomatic of the film’s most glaring deficiency in the unevenness of its tone; it seems to gradually lose focus as it progresses, the screenplay becoming a little too loose and undisciplined. Scenes of the students interacting in class are a good case in point; though necessary to lighten the tone, they come off as frivolous and extraneous after a while.

The strength of the performances elicited by Daniels helps the film immeasurably however. Sidibe, in her screen debut, turns the downtrodden Precious into a dignified, highly sympathetic protagonist, so beaten down by circumstance she seemingly has no right to get back up. Comedienne Mo’Nique is a revelation as the caustic, grotesque Mary in what is surely one of the nastiest maternal portraits ever committed to film. The bile she spews, and justification she cites for her treatment of Precious in what is a bravura final scene for her, is summoned from a very dark place within.

The luminescent Patton is a breath of fresh air as the strong-willed Ms. Rain who provides to first positive link to a future Precious can look forward to, whilst a deglamourised Mariah Carey makes convincing use of her limited scenes as a social worker also mindful of a need to intervene in Precious’ life and arrest her downward spiral.

There are no easy solutions for a predicament as calamitous as this young woman’s, and it takes a delicate touch to avoid a resolution that’s mawkish, effectively undercutting the plausible momentum created. Despite becoming an unfortunate by-product of her mother’s neglect in the wake of the molestation she first suffered as a baby, Precious’ story is ultimately one of dignity preserved in the face of treacherous, blind indifference, even to ties of blood. Despite the film’s glaring shortcomings, including a lack of subtlety, its most hopeful message of a spirit that refuses to assent to unjust forces, both social and biological, comes through loud and clear, assuring a measure of real credibility.