Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is a high-school girl with nothing working in her favor. She is pregnant with her father's child—for the second time. She can't read or write, and her schoolmates tease her for being fat.
Her home life is a horror, ruled by a mother (Mo'Nique) who keeps her imprisoned both emotionally and physically. Precious's instincts tell her one thing: if she's ever going to break from the chains of ignorance, she will have to dig deeply into her own resources.
Aside from wielding one of the most cumbersome film titles since 'Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,' 'Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire' tells one of the most depressing and disturbing stories in recent memory. Lee Daniels' uncompromising adaptation of the popular 1996 novel hits hard in its depiction of sexual, physical, and mental abuse and the struggle of one obese black teenager to escape and overcome it. Yet the picture itself has its own trouble breaking free from the constraining genre conventions that, like the characters' emotional baggage, weigh heavily upon it.
'Precious' is a big-screen movie, but often flaunts a small-screen feel, making it tough at times not to think of it as an R-rated 'Afterschool Special' or sweeps week installment of 'Law & Order: Special Victims' Unit.' With so much brutality and unpleasantness on display, viewers will either surrender to the squalor or, like the tale's resilient heroine, detach themselves from it. I tried to immerse myself in the story, but often felt like an outsider looking in. Maybe 'Precious' resides so far beyond my realm of personal experience, I couldn't relate to it, or maybe the filmmaking kept the story from truly coming alive. Whatever the case, despite the hefty volume of palpable emotion on display throughout much of this difficult-to-watch drama, 'Precious' didn't evoke the visceral, punch-in-the-gut response I expected. Though I appreciate its powerful thematic and inspirational elements and excellent performances, the movie left me strangely cold.
Anyone who thinks they have problems need only walk a few feet in the shoes of Claireece "Precious" Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) to know what the term "living hell" really means, and realize almost all of us live a charmed life by comparison. The illiterate, grossly overweight 16-year-old is stuck in the 9th grade, either ignored or ridiculed by her peers, and pregnant with her second child. The baby's father – and the father of her first child, who suffers from Down's Syndrome – is her own father, who's been systematically raping Precious for years. He's now out of the picture, but her monstrous mother (Mo'Nique), who lounges about their seedy Harlem apartment ordering Precious around like a slave, denigrating her intelligence, bruising her self-esteem, and, like a Nazi prison warden, piling on heaps of physical and emotional abuse, blames her daughter for his desertion. With nothing positive in her life or any hope of emancipation, Precious seeks solace in daydreams, imagining herself in several outlandish guises – rap star, fashion model, gospel singer. (At one point, she looks in the mirror and sees a pretty white girl in the reflection.)
Yet despite all the neglect, Precious scores good grades and displays a rare talent for math. But when her pregnancy leads to her expulsion from school (in what universe does that happen?), the sympathetic principal (Nealla Gordon) suggests she transfer to Each One/Teach One, an alternative learning center that would better serve her needs. Her mother, of course, opposes the move, hoping to keep her battered daughter under her thumb and away from any opportunities for advancement and independence, but Precious forges ahead and enrolls anyway, and the intimate, nurturing environment, spearheaded by the sensitive Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), puts the troubled girl on a positive path. With a worthy role model and the support of a caring social worker (Mariah Carey), Precious tries to put the past behind her, face the challenges of her uncertain present, learn self-respect, and grab as much from life as she can while she can.
'Precious' is meticulously designed to touch and inspire (considering Oprah Winfrey is one of its executive producers, could we expect anything else?), and it does its job well… in fact, maybe too well. No one needs a road map to see where the film is heading, despite a script that tries its best to shock and outrage us by dropping a couple of devastating bombshells along the way. Some welcome humor tempers the dour proceedings, but as it navigates various minefields, 'Precious,' at times, can be a bit too precious – and too obvious – in its presentation, and often seems like a movie specifically constructed as a window for white folks to peer through to get a glimpse of the black experience, instead of a gritty slice-of-life, no-agenda drama. In that respect, it's very much like another inspirational Winfrey project about spiritual renewal (and another film that failed to ignite my imagination), 'The Color Purple,' updated and transferred to the rough concrete jungle of 1987 Harlem.
Any raw qualities 'Precious' possesses come from the uniformly excellent performances, which make the film worthwhile. In her debut role, Sidibe embodies the persecuted teen, mumbling her lines and exhibiting a sullen, withdrawn expression that never overtly begs for our sympathy. As a result, she earns it in spades, and though she won't wrest the Academy Award away from Sandra Bullock on Oscar night, Sidibe makes quite an impression, and it's doubtful 'Precious' would be as successful without her participation. Ditto Mo'Nique, who is both a revelation and a shoo-in to win Best Supporting Actress. Selfish to the core and without a shred of remorse, her character victimizes her own flesh and blood, and the stand-up comic-turned-actress files a riveting, utterly believable portrayal that deserves every accolade it has received.
And who knew Mariah Carey could act? De-glammed and shedding the carefully constructed and foolishly maintained sex kitten-cum-diva persona that's defined her for the past 20 years, the pop music icon almost erases the nightmarish memories of 'Glitter' with a matter-of-fact, unaffected performance tinged with just a hint of Brooklyn attitude. Though she never disappears inside her role (it's hard not to sit there thinking, "Wow, that's Mariah Carey, and she's good!"), Carey proves she's worthy of a second look as an actress, and will hopefully pursue similar low-profile parts in offbeat films in the future… unless her ego intervenes.
Many fine elements distinguish 'Precious,' but somehow they don't add up to a completely satisfying whole. There's no denying this is one tough film to get through, and though there's beauty in the title character's strength, resilience, and optimism – all of which should inspire teen girls everywhere – it's not enough to overcome the story's generic presentation and familiar motifs. Despite its faults, 'Precious' is still a film worth seeing (although I can't imagine visiting it more than once); just don't expect to be blown away by anything except the work of Sidibe and especially Mo'Nique. If there's anything precious about 'Precious,' it's them.
'Precious' sports a solid if unspectacular transfer that accurately reflects the often gritty, low-budget look of the film. Splashes of color, such as Precious' red scarf, add welcome vibrancy to a rather drab palette, and deep black levels lend the image warmth and presence. (The brief fantasy sequences flaunt a lushness that's understandably absent from the rest of the movie, featuring bold hues that occasionally come close to bleeding.) A fine grain structure, especially noticeable when the action shifts to the Harlem tenement, accentuates the dismal domestic atmosphere Precious must endure and creates a hazy look that aptly reflects confusion and uncertainty. Muted contrast distinguishes these interior scenes, and though the image isn't exactly soft, low light makes details more difficult to pick out. Levels pump up nicely, however, when the action shifts outdoors, enhancing clarity. Close-ups are often stunning and brim with crisp facial details and excellent dimensionality, and fleshtones are generally spot-on.
All in all, this is a good effort from Lionsgate that lacks any artificial enhancements and stays true to the original film's look and feel.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track provides quality sound, but 'Precious' isn't a film that will test the limits of your system. Most of the audio is front-based, with the surrounds kicking in most notably during the glitzy fantasy sequences, which boast a palpable level boost and distinct sonic accents. Some faint ambience also bleeds to the rears during exterior scenes, and the subtle music score nicely fills the room, but rarely does the subwoofer become a part of the equation. Dialogue is the film's bread-and-butter and is always properly prioritized, clear, and easy to understand. Far from bombastic, this natural mix complements the movie well and rarely draws attention to itself.
'Precious' comes packed with plenty of absorbing supplements that honor the film's serious nature. All material is presented in high definition.
'Precious' is a critic's darling, but I had trouble wrapping my arms around this sad, disturbing, yet ultimately hopeful tale of abuse and rebirth. Though the performances are top-notch, the film itself is very run-of-the-mill, and its shocking subject matter is all that distinguishes it from typical inspirational genre entries. Solid video and audio and a fine supplemental package enhance the disc, but the rough story severely limits replay value. The acting alone definitely makes 'Precious' worth a look, but rent it first to gauge your reaction to all that's depicted on screen.