Precious (United States, 2009)

November 03, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Precious Poster

Precious (saddled with the unwieldy subtitle: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire) manages the task of being both heartbreaking and heart-warming, all without resorting to the kind of manipulation so often evident in dramas about underprivileged kids trying to improve themselves. There are pitfalls inherent in this kind of story, but indie director Lee Daniels sidesteps them, crafting a feature that is both emotionally honest and stirring. Precious spends time in the urban trenches that are often used as a colorful backdrop for other less true films; here, they are integral to the essence of the characters, places where acts of supreme horror are dismissed matter-of-factly. Ultimately, Precious is a story of one young woman's embrace of self-worth in these circumstances, but that discovery does not come without a price.

When the Oscar nominees are announced in 2010, I expect Precious to be among them, even though it has a harder edge than the kind of film Hollywood embraces. It's hard not to see this as being among the year's ten best films, regardless of what standards are being applied to that list. Likewise, there's every reason to believe that newcomer Gabby Sidibe will have a place alongside Carey Mulligan on the Best Actress short list. This is the kind of freshman performance that garners attention and notice. For two hours, Sidibe is Precious Jones; we live and suffer and overcome alongside the character in part because the actress has become the character. There are no awkward moments or missteps.

It's 1987 and Clareece Precious Jones is a taciturn, obese 16-year old girl who excels at math but is deficient in almost all other areas of education, particularly reading and writing. Her home life is a living hell: she must wait hand-and-foot on her quick tempered, domineering mother, Mary (Mo'Nique), and is pregnant with her second child as a result of a rape by her father. When the principal of Precious' school learns of her pregnancy, she arranges for the girl to become a pupil at an alternative school, although Mary is against further education for her "dumb" daughter. She believes the only future for Precious is to get on welfare. When she tries to do this, she faces uncomfortable questions from her case officer, Mrs. Weiss (Mariah Carey). Meanwhile, Precious discovers an oasis of calm in the classroom of Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), whose genuine concern for her students encourages Precious to let down some of her defenses. But when she gives birth to a son, things go from bad to worse at home, especially when she gets some bad news about her father.

One of the most surprising things about Precious is how uncompromisingly detestable Mary is portrayed. This isn't a cookie-cutter "bad mother" whose sole purpose is to provide a path to redemption and reconciliation at the end. The filmmakers don't take the easy way out, either, by turning her into a caricature. They provide adequate backstory to explain Mary's actions but not to excuse them. She is complicit in all of the terrible things that happen to Precious throughout the course of the story. She is physically abusive in ways that are difficult to behold and, on at least one occasion, she tries to murder her daughter. It's also eerie to watch the mask of false sincerity she dons when a social worker visits. As good as Gabby Sidibe's work is in the title role, Mo'Nique deserves equal credit in a performance that is no less accomplished.

Aside from Mary, the supporting characters are underwritten, but that's excusable given the time constraints of a movie that makes the correct decision to focus on Precious. Further developing the likes of Mrs. Weiss, Ms. Rain, and the other students in Precious' class would have necessitated widening the scope of the film and that might have resulted in a dilution of its essential strengths. The film is perhaps notable for featuring Mariah Carey in a simple dramatic role as Precious' welfare case worker. The part is neither showy nor obvious and Carey does a solid job; she accomplishes what an effective supporting player should do.

This is Lee Daniels' second feature as a director, following 2005's festival circuit participant, Shadowboxer. Daniels' film business credentials extend beyond his behind-the-camera endeavors -among other things, he produced Monsters Ball. Although Precious is a low-budget production, it has attracted some notable backers, with both Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry signing on in executive producer roles, which should accord the film more prominence than it might otherwise attain. When it debuted to a rapturous reception at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2009, Precious went by the name of Push, but the title was changed to avoid confusion with the mainstream action film that opened (and subsequently disappeared) early in the year. Under its new name, Precious highlighted several film festivals and was enthusiastically greeted at each one, including Toronto, where it won the audience award. Often, festival citations don't mean much, but this is an exception. It's unclear how widespread the movie's final distribution will be but, even if it means making an unusual effort, this is worth searching out. It's a 2009 example of the kind of passionate independent filmmaking that was in vogue 15 years ago and whose richness is sadly lacking today. Precious is a reminder that sometimes all it takes to make a great film is the courageous performance of an actor as a character whose story is compelling enough to consume two hours of screen time.

Precious (United States, 2009)

Ranked #8 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2009
Run Time: 1:49
U.S. Release Date: 2009-11-06
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1