Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire
by Lisa Draski
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In Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, Claireece “Precious” Jones wryly recounts in voiceover the words of her teacher and champion Ms. Rain, “The longest journey begins with a single step.” For Precious, that journey is one of the longest and most perilous imaginable. The key is to never stop moving, and Precious never does. Terrifying as her journey is, we eagerly take that first step with Precious, and the next one, and the next. The longest and most difficult journeys are often the most rewarding, and this film is no exception.
The story begins in Harlem, 1987. Precious (newcomer Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe) is 16 years old, African-American, severely overweight, and illiterate. She lives with her monstrously abusive mother Mary (an astonishing Mo’Nique), who can’t stand the sight of Precious but needs her around to collect her welfare so that she can sit around and do nothing but watch television and inflict misery on her imprisoned daughter. Precious is also pregnant with her second child…by her own father. We only see him briefly in flashbacks of the rape. While Precious is far below the level she should be at in her education for her age, she is undeniably bright. When faced with the possibility of expulsion, she is offered an opportunity to go to an alternative school under the guidance of the “Each One, Teach One” program (a sort of last resort for young people that society doesn’t want to deal with anymore) and the firm-yet-exceedingly-compassionate Ms. Rain (Paula Patton). Going to this school is the aforementioned single step that begins Precious’ long journey of self-discovery and self-actualization.
Of course, Precious’ journey started long before this moment. She’s been on this journey since the day she was born. She is the epitome of the adage, “Whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” Beaten down at every turn, Precious perseveres, determined to improve herself and make a better life for her two children. It is interesting to note that, for better or worse, Precious exists in an almost entirely female-centric world. This is a fiercely feminist film. The support system that Precious finds in her teacher Ms. Rain and her wonderfully colorful but never stereotypical female classmates is inspiring. Some of the film’s best scenes take place in the classroom, where authenticity, sharp dialogue, humor, and crackling rapport abound. However, these scenes are contrasted sharply with her home life with her physically-sexually-verbally-emotionally abusive mother. Without a doubt, Precious desperately deserves the compassion, camaraderie, and light that she has found so miraculously in such a dark tunnel.
Precious has an excellent script by Geoffrey Fletcher, simultaneously grim and gorgeous cinematography by Andrew Dunn, instantly believable and submersive production design, art direction, and set decoration (Roshelle Berliner, Matteo De Cosmo, and Kelley Burney, respectively), and slick and resonant editing by Joe Klotz. All of the individually brilliant elements are expertly tied together by Lee Daniels in only his second directorial effort. He has a fantastic eye and a terrific overall vision, and he does an amazing job balancing all of the complex parts of this epic human opera (humor, tragedy, despair, hope, and on and on) and drawing powerful performances out of his actors. This brutal subject matter, in less adept hands than those of Daniels, could have easily become fodder for some cheesy, hyper-melodramatic Lifetime movie or after-school special. No matter how many hardships are heaped upon Precious (and there are so, so many, each truly horrific), the melodrama finds exactly the right pitch, and the film never feels formulaic, preachy, or farcical. Perhaps that is the director’s most impressive achievement. Daniels produced Monster’s Ball, another rough and emotionally-wrenching film. Yet Monster’s Ball feels too heavy-handed and calculated at times and thus falls victim to the issues that Precious avoids. The problems that befall Precious (the character) don’t feel like plot devices meant to tug shamelessly at your heartstrings. Precious is genuine through and through. It’s the real deal. Daniels’ visceral, confident, and uncompromising direction is beautiful to behold.
The acting by the entire ensemble is phenomenal. Lenny Kravitz is natural and sweet as Nurse John, one of the only males in this matriarchal world. Mariah Carey is almost unrecognizable as welfare case worker Mrs. Weiss. Who knew that she had such a subtle, strong, lovely performance in her? She’s not a diva here; she’s an actor on par with everyone else in the film. Paula Patton is exquisite as the multi-faceted Ms. Rain. Precious describes Ms. Rain as having a light that emanates from within her, and the same can be said about Patton. She lights up the screen; in fact, she could light up all of New York City. In her first film role (saying that is so shocking to me), Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe becomes Precious, fully and fearlessly. This is the work of a veteran. She completely disappears into the horror of Precious’ life and evokes our empathy implicitly. For most of the film, her eyes are scrunched up so tightly that it’s like Precious has developed a mechanism for literally shutting out the reality that is unrelentingly cruel to her. Precious also, quite understandably, disappears into fantasy to cope (strutting down a red carpet, modeling at a photo shoot, and, possibly my favorite, slipping into an old black-and-white Italian movie that her mother is watching on TV). Sidibe positively sparkles in these sequences. Just look at the difference between her acting in Precious’ fantasies and in her reality, and witness the birth of a star. Watching Sidibe undergo Precious’ transformation, her remarkable arc, is glorious.
Comedian Mo’Nique is a revelation as Precious’ mother Mary. She’s so phenomenal and dynamic that words aren’t adequate enough to do her justice. Instead of turning Mary into a one-note caricature, Mo’Nique imbues her with tremendous depth and makes her deeply, painfully human, someone that by the end, you pity instead of hate. Her final scene (easily one of the best of the year) will shock you and break your heart. She’s devastating, vulnerable, and totally exposed. It’s gut-wrenching, soul-stirring drama of the highest order. The chemistry between her and Sidibe is electrifying as they depict this volatile mother-daughter relationship which is both nightmarish and fascinating, a relationship that is one of the most complicated and twisted and rich in cinematic history. Mo’Nique’s performance is one for the ages, certainly one that will garner her at least an Oscar nomination, and hopefully a win.
For all of the tribulations that Precious encounters and endures, I felt like the ending was a bit abrupt, and I was left a tad unfulfilled. Still, my quibbles are very minor: Precious is an extraordinary film. It’s extremely hard to watch, but you won’t be sorry that you did. It drags you through the depths of hell and all of the worst aspects of humanity, but it also lifts you back up and gives you hope. It’s a grueling process, but well worth it. You will never forget the experience. Find out for yourself what makes this girl, this film, and life in general so incredibly precious.
Lisa Draski Lisa Draski is a freelance writer and film scholar living in Chicago.
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