Precious, which I refuse to refer to by its absurd full title of Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire (I guess we should be thankful that Return of the King wasn't called The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: Based on the Novel "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" by J. R. R. Tolkein), is the extremely rare if not the only prestige movie of this awards season that damn near lives up to the hype surrounding it. I liked it a lot, depressing as it may be, probably in no small part due to my inherent fondness for high school movies and movies with teen protagonists. Some have accused the film of being poverty porn for white liberals to sit through so they can feel good about having spent a couple hours in an air-conditioned theater with those po' black folk onscreen (and indeed, if there were any non-whites in my screening I sure didn't see 'em), but while there may be a nugget of truth in that I don't think it changes the fact that it's a good if tragic story with good if tragic characters.
Let's run down the litany of abuse heaped on our misfortunate heroine: Claireece "Precious" Jones is a dirt poor, morbidly obese, functionally illiterate 16-year-old still in junior high school. She's pregnant with her second child, from the same father as her first child, her own father, both children the product of repeated rapes. Oh, and her first baby has Down syndrome. She lives with her abusive mother, a chain smoking welfare queen who beats her and screams at her and treats her as a slave. And that's all backstory not even getting into what happens during the film, which includes disease and beatings and abuse of her and her baby. Shit! In high school I thought I was having a bad day if I forgot to record my TV shows!
Now I don't blame anyone who blanches and says "no thanks" in response to that plot summary, but the surprising thing about Precious is that it's not at all without relief, hope, or even flat-out levity, particularly in scenes set in the remedial school Precious begins attending taught by a somewhat generic but still very likable Hollywood inspiring teacher played by Paula Patton, one of the precious few (PUN MASTERSTROKE) legitimately good people in the otherwise bleak narrative. We get to know and like Precious's teacher and classmates as she does in a very natural, unforced way that gradually sheds some of the hopeless gloom we begin the film in the muck of. The story lacks a conventional three act structure culminating a spectacularly dramatic climax; instead, we begin at the lowest point possible and gradually move uphill from there.
Unlike most movies about soul-crushing poverty, Precious is anything but stodgy or languid in its pacing. There's a genuine director's eye behind the film, managing to make our trips inside Precious's mind interesting and vibrant, her classroom inherently and undeniably ghetto but still bustling with a certain hope and teenage energy, and the apartment she lives in with her mother so palpably foul your skin will crawl. Whenever her mother forces her to cook some pigs feet or fried chicken the way director Lee Daniels focuses on the sizzling grease running down the food ruined my appetite in a brilliantly visceral way. I usually groan and roll my eyes when relatively small-scale character studies get Best Director nominations (see last year's Frost/Nixon, a good movie, but still one about two guys sitting in a room talking that had no fucking business getting a directing nomination), but Precious is a huge, deserving exception.
Which brings us to actors, of which two stand out. Gabourey Sidibe as Precious embodies a quiet yet consuming depression that gradually morphs into equally quiet yet uplifting hope as we follow her through the film. It's not a flashy performance but it's a very good one. But not surprisingly, most of the critical and awards attention is being directed towards Mo'Nique as her abusive mother, which is a flashy performance. Don't let anyone fool you into thinking that this is a deep or complicated character — she's no less a monolith of absolute, unfettered evil than Ledger's Joker or Anton Chigurh, basically no different than a Disney evil stepmother except for facilitating pedophilia and rape — but it's a fiery and powerful performance that's near-impossible to look away from, and I won't complain if Mo'Nique sweeps up all the supporting actress awards. Anyone who reads my stuff with any regularity knows that I always applaud a good villain, which Precious has in spades.
I'm not gonna tell anyone who thinks the subject matter sounds like the last thing on earth they want to watch that they must go see the film regardless, but I will say to anyone who has some vague curiosity but isn't sure if the hype is just critical smoke and mirrors masking a mediocre film like An Education or Babel or The Reader that it's definitely not. Precious is actually pretty great in my opinion, not one I'll go back to over and over again, but one I was pretty riveted with throughout its duration. Check it out.
3 Stars out of 5