The full title of Lee Daniels' Precious is actually Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire, and if you think that's overkill, just wait until you see the movie. The catalogue of abuses that Daniels rains down upon this unfortunate girl beggars belief. Claireece 'Precious' Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is a morbidly obese and illiterate black teenager living in Harlem in 1987. She lives with her mother (Mo'Nique), a beastly figure who sits in front of the TV all day, smoking, eating, and hurting her daughter both physically and emotionally. Her father is mostly absent, but he does turn up occasionally to rape his daughter; she had a child by him at the age of 12, and she is currently carrying another. The first child was born with Down's Syndrome, and Precious calls her Mongo (Mongo!). Later, we learn that Precious' father is HIV Positive. Jesus, what a life.
The horrors inflicted upon Precious are painful enough to require no further embellishment, but Daniels doesn't seem to understand that, or else he doesn't trust his audience to get it without bludgeoning them into a reaction. The rape scene goes something like this: Precious is thrown onto the bed by a shadowy figure as her mother walks past the open door; we get close-ups of a Vaseline tub and a belt being unbuckled under a sweaty torso; the father grinds away on top of Precious ("Daddy loves you, baby") as Daniels intercuts shots of greasy eggs and bacon sizzling away on the stove. The effect to is undermine the seriousness of what is happening on screen, turning it instead into a lurid melodrama, which is too overheated to be taken at all seriously. Even while the power of the performances drew me into the film, the stunningly crass nature of Daniels' exploitative direction kept pushing me away. Precious finally lost me during a ridiculous scene that climaxes with Precious' mother trying to crush her daughter and newborn grandson with a TV. Many of my fellow audience members gasped at this point – I couldn't help but laugh.
Precious is at its best when Daniels gives his lead character some space and allows her to develop in front of us. At the start of the film, Precious is a monosyllabic lump who has responded to her abuse by withdrawing into herself and shutting down her emotions. Through her voiceover, we get a sense of the character's inner life, the one she is too afraid to reveal to the outside world, and Daniels shows us her imagination at work by cutting away from the misery with a series of fantasy sequences. In one, she pictures herself as a movie star walking the red carpet, in another she's a model posing for the cameras, while one fantasy – interesting, yet unexplored – has her wishing she was a thin white blonde girl. Unfortunately, these inserts are unimaginatively and cheaply shot, and some of them don't even make sense. At one point, Precious' mother, who watches nothing but TV quiz shows, is found sitting in front of an Italian neorealist movie, purely so Precious can have a black-and-white subtitled dream sequence.
The real stage for Precious' emergence is a remedial class she enrols in when her pregnancy causes her to be expelled from school. The class is run by the improbably named Blu Rain (Paula Patton), an idealistic teacher who never develops into anything more than a collection of clichés, and after an awkward introduction, Precious finds writing as the key to her self-expression. Gabourey Sidibe makes us believe in the character's transition with her utterly authentic performance, and there's something undeniably touching about watching this seemingly defeated person gradually come out of her shell. I do believe it was a mistake on Daniels' part to cast all of Precious' saviours as attractive, light-skinned people (Patton, along with Mariah Carey's social worker and Lenny Kravitz's nurse), but he does draw uniformly strong performances from his ensemble, with the interaction between Precious and her fellow students being particularly pleasing.
The one performance that seems likely to garner most of the headlines and awards attention is that of Mo'Nique, whose display as Precious' vile mother is a remarkable, all-or-nothing piece of acting. As written, Mary Jones is a one-note character, and Mo'Nique plays her with all of the hatred and rage that she can muster, but she also manages to suggests the occasional hint of depth and shade in the role, in her rare quiet moments, and she just about manages to pull Mary back from tipping over into caricature. Throughout Precious, there's a tension between Daniel's crudely simplistic approach and the hard work of actors capable of taking their roles to a deeper, more truthful place. If there is any reason to watch Precious, it is for this cast and for the performances of Sidibe and Mo'Nique in particular. They grab you by the collar, pull you through the muck and misery, and help you make it to the other side, but for all their efforts, you still might end up wondering if this was a journey worth taking.