Reviewed by Jade Hoffman
This film is incredibly grim. That’s a word that’s been used to describe Precious quite frequently and, looking over the synopsis, that’s definitely what you get from it. Clareece Precious Jones is an overweight, illiterate sixteen-year old girl living in poverty in Harlem, pregnant for the second time by her father. Her first child (a toddler with Down’s Syndrome who is casually referred to as “Mongo”) lives with her grandmother, but Precious lives with her abusive mother and has just been suspended from school.
Precious knows when to keep her mouth shut. In fact, for much of the film, Precious says very little and conducts herself with a slightly vacant indifference that many of the people in her life take for insolence or stupidity. The side of Precious that we are presented with, however, is different. Her narrative is sweet, hopeful and even humorous. It is surprisingly poetic, and is never self-pitying. Director Lee Daniels interweaves some the most bleak and traumatic scenes of Precious’ life with her glittering, exuberant fantasies, where Precious can be a glamorous celebrity, or dancer, or else a pretty blonde white girl getting ready for school. Precious does not just endure her hardships, she really shines through them with a strange kind of optimism that doesn’t let her dwell too long on misery. “I feel all warm,” she muses after her maths teacher praises her, and then ducks to narrowly avoid her mother whacking a frying pan at her head.
But this is not a film that tries to shove a gratuitously gritty abuse story in your face, it never dares you to confront the harsh realism of it all in that frustratingly arrogant way that some films do. At the same time, the film does not see her magically lifted out of her old life with saccharine fairytale-like convenience, even as Precious is placed in an alternative school and is taught to read by her extraordinarily patient and caring teacher (played by Paula Patton). Daniels handles the subject matter in a way that is uncompromising, without being unnecessary, and positive, without being sickening. Sometimes, Daniels’ abrupt scene transitions and choice of contrasts can fall flat or seem jarring (although it’s very possible his intentions may have been for occasional bluntness), and they disrupt the flow of the story, but not enough to detract from the force of the film’s strong cast.
Already nominated for several BAFTAs and several more Oscars, the cast of this film carry it very well. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe in the starring role gives a powerful and impressively balanced performance, never overdoing it. Similarly astounding is Mo’Nique, playing Precious’ mother with terrifying realism. Both are nominated for BAFTAs in the Best Leading and Supporting Actress categories respectively, and deservedly so. Their performances coupled with some hand-held shooting, give this film an almost documentary-like feel, often a quite disturbing sensation, considering the subject matter. The supporting cast are equally strong, with Paula Patton, Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey as the few people in Precious’ life who are working to improve her circumstances. Mariah Carey was very good (now that’s a sentence I never thought I would be saying).
Many who have seen this film have mentioned on how they consider it to be an important experience, if not a particularly enjoyable one. Whilst I don’t think that this is strictly true – Daniels doesn’t go out of his way to create something that people will find uncomfortable to watch – this is a film that is definitely worth watching. Not that it will necessarily change your life, but because it is a tremendous presentation of a difficult story that showcases some truly impressive talent.