Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire may be the worst-feeling feel-good story ever committed to celluloid. The protagonist, Claireece Precious Jones (Gabourey ‘Gabby’ Sidibe), is 16, morbidly obese, and illiterate. Her indolent mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), treats her like a slave, beating and abusing her incessantly. Her father, on the rare occasions when he shows up, seizes the opportunity to rape her. These violent attentions resulted in her bearing him a child when she was twelve; as the film begins, she is pregnant with another. The first baby has Down syndrome and is named “Mongo” (“short for ‘mongoloid,’” Precious explains); to her good fortune, the little girl lives with Precious’s grandmother, except when Mary briefly imports her to the apartment for social-worker visits so that she can continue receiving the welfare check the child entails.
Uplifted yet? And we haven’t even gotten to the part where Precious learns that, thanks to her father’s assaults, she’s also HIV-positive. …
That material so grim has been rendered watchable, let alone a forceful cinematic experience, is a testament to director Lee Daniels and, especially, his cast. Newcomer Sidibe gives a subtle, textured performance in the lead role, at once shy and hurt and surly. She juts her chin and squints her eyes as if trying to fold her face inward and retreat from the world, safe in her cocoon of accumulated flesh. There, she would be free to live the fantasy lives Daniels provides her, as a movie star on a red carpet or a dancer on BET, imaginary worlds to which she flees when her drunken father again pins her to the bed.
His monstrosity, at least, is an infrequent visitation; her mother’s violent, insatiable narcissism, by contrast, is the sole constant in her life. Comedienne Mo’Nique gnaws her way into the role with horrifying conviction, creating an indelible portrait of envy, fear, and malice. Her Mary is a woman incapable of acknowledging any needs outside of her own, one who refers to her Down syndrome granddaughter as a “goddamn animal” and is jealous that her boyfriend’s rapes have impregnated Precious more often than her. She is a black hole of human selfishness.
The movie tells the story of Precious’s gradual escape from that ravenous gravitational well, out of the apartment of cigarette smoke and pig’s feet and bed springs and casual cruelty and into a world of unimagined possibilities. She’s aided on the journey by a literacy teacher, Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), into whose hands she falls after being expelled from school, a social worker (Mariah Carey, in a performance miraculously devoid of divahood) who excavates her history of abuse, and a motley, yet entirely persuasive crew of girls in her literacy class. The arc of the story may be familiar, but it is told with such ruthlessness that it feels revelatory. This is a film that makes the fiercest domestic drama of last year, Revolutionary Road, look, well, domesticated.
But Precious is unsettling, too, in ways less clearly intended. If the dark-skinned Precious’s announced desire for a “light-skinned boyfriend” is a commentary on the political contours of skin-tone prejudice, what are we to make of the fact that the filmmakers cast a light-skinned beauty to play the urbane, angelic Ms. Rain? There are moments, too, when acknowledging reality and stooping to stereotype are not so far apart as one might like--for instance, when Precious steals a tub of fried chicken and wolfs it down greedily. And while the film manages, to my eye, to hew to the proper side of this line, not everyone may agree.
Moreover, by the end, when the details of Precious’s abuse have been unpacked in their revolting particulars, it’s hard to shake a certain sense of overkill. For all the air of authenticity Precious accrues--I know several people who believed it to be autobiographical or at least based on a true story--it is a work of fiction. And as such, there’s something borderline distasteful about the extremes of invented abuse heaped upon poor Precious, as if Sapphire, who wrote the novel on which the film is based, thought it an insufficiently miserable fate to be serially raped by one’s own father and decided to “juice” the tale by adding a few ancillary perversions. The deeper the horror, the thinking seems to be, the greater the uplift when Precious rises above it. But storytelling, alas, is not arithmetic.
Indeed, if Precious has a crucial flaw, it is that it is at once too bleak and too hopeful in its closing scenes: too bleak in the history it unearths, and too hopeful that the mere fact of the unearthing will make the history go away. The film is famously executive-produced by Oprah Winfrey (along with Tyler Perry), and its conclusion seems the apotheosis of Oprah-ism: Precious has had her breakthrough--and that, we’re essentially told, is enough for a happy ending. Don’t worry about the fact that she is still an HIV-positive, teenage single mother of two with a remedial education and no obvious path to self-sufficiency. The therapeutic hurdle has been overcome, so the rest will follow. It’s a lesson that may hold true if you’re a multimillionaire TV icon, but a rather dicier proposition for someone in Precious’s circumstances.
Precious is a powerful, groundbreaking film, worthy of being seen and, perhaps, debated--a distinction few pictures this year can claim. But in the end, I think, it is neither as true nor as unsparing a tale as it imagines itself to be.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.