Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) is 16. Precious is a mother. Precious is pregnant again. Precious can trace both those children back not to a lover or a one-night stand but to her own father. Precious’ mother (Mo'Nique) beats her with bottles and shoes and fists. Precious looks as if the weight of the world has squashed her down. Precious fantasizes of stardom and fame in images she’s learned from TV and magazines, as if the perfect state of being was if she were living in a music video; even her dreams are limited.
Adapting Sapphire’s 1996 novel Push for the big screen, Precious played Sundance to acclaim before being invited to play in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes. Director Lee Daniels has taken Sapphire’s novel and, while leavening it with bold inventions, has also refused to water it down or tack on a happy ending – while, at the same time, telling a story that earns the uplift it depicts. And that unflinching toughness may, in fact, be the biggest challenge it faces: We regularly look away from people like Precious in the real world — what makes Daniels think we’ll be eager to see her life on the big screen?
The fact is that Daniels’ film is as well-made as it is well-intentioned, with real directorial effort shaping the visual style of the film and the story’s changes and inventions. He also knows how to get performances out of his actors, from Sidibe – who shows Precious’ journey with such careful, lived-in detail that you recognize her work as a performance and not a one-trick creation – to Mo'Nique, whose work as a toxic nightmare of a mother is begins as a nightmare and then takes on deeper shades as she explains the reasons for some of her crimes. There are positive influences in Precious’ life, too – a nurse played by Lenny Kravitz with deadpan, seen-it-all charm, a teacher played by Paula Patton with sincerity that never becomes saccharine and a harsh-but-helpful social worker played by Mariah Carey.
It’s worth noting that we don’t see Precious’ father as a character outside of flashbacks, but it’s easy to recognize that any more of a presence for the character would necessitate dealing with him; he may be out of sight, but he’s never out of our mind, even as you know that having him actually be present would shift the dynamic of the film. And while Precious goes through so much that it at first seems like an artificially stacked deck – the more she suffers, the more we’ll care – the film never feels like it’s simply running us through the wringer; more bluntly, it’s hard to dismiss the things Precious endures when you recognize that, as horrible as her trials are, there are people going through far worse in the here-and-now, and if the film makes you recognize that, then it’s done far more good than most films do.
Backed by Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, Precious is, as they say in the business, “a tough sit”; at the same time, it has a broad, if conflicted, message of uplift. (The system betrays Precious and helps her; Precious changes her life all on her own, but with plenty of support.) But Daniels keeps us coming back to Precious – rooting for her, caring about her, even as we’re aware of her occasional foolishness and her few flaws. The difficult truth of Precious is that, at the start of the film, the world around her regards her as anything but; the ultimate triumph of Precioius is that, by the end of the movie, we and she are able to recognize how she truly is.