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Precious (2009)

  • Review: *** (out of ****)
  • Starring: Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Sherri Shepherd, Lenny Kravitz, Stephanie Andujar, Cyna Layne
  • Director: Lee Daniels
  • Screenplay: Geoffrey Fletcher (Novel: Sapphire)
  • Length: 100 min.
  • MPAA Rating: R for child abuse including sexual assault, and pervasive language.

Child abuse is a universal issue. We’ve seen it countless times through the lens of white families for decades. Precious explores the topic from a seldom-covered direction.

Her name is Clareece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe). She wants to be on the cover of a magazine and have a light-skinned boyfriend, but most of all, she wants to be in one of those BET videos. From the outset of this film, we have a young woman painted broadly as the typical teenager hoping for a better life. What isn’t typical, however, is that she comes from a poor family and is the recipient of mental, sexual and physical abuse. So, her dreams are less hopes for the future, but ways to escape the horrors of her own life.

Her poor school performance and negative attitude, not to mention her second pregnancy borne of her father, result in her expulsion from the normal pubic school. And although her mother, an unrepentantly abusive woman, wants her in school so she doesn’t lose her Welfare check, it is that impetus that ultimately leads to Precious emergence into the reality that love is not a fantasy and abuse does not have to be tolerated.

Sidibe’s performance is spectacular for a newcomer. The character isn’t terribly well written, but she gives it a personality that enables the audience to actively empathize with her troubles. The rest of the cast is either solid (Paula Patton, the other classroom girls), weak (Sherri hepherd, Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz), or magnificent (Mo’Nique).

Comedienne Mo’Nique takes on the role of Mary Jones, Precious’ mother. She is so vicious and self-serving that you hate her from the first instance you see her. But what Mo’Nique brings to the performance is a depth you wouldn’t expect, fully realized in her astounding final scenes with the government worker investigating the case of abuse and neglect. Not since Ellen Burstyn’s unflinching performance in Requiem for a Dream have I seen something so visceral and aggressive come off so admirably well.

The story itself is fairly pedestrian, its characters the only exceptional aspect. Although many equate great dialogue as making a great screenplay, Precious acts as an example of how even deep, moving characters and situations, and conversation do not make for a terrific screenplay. The plot and subplots surrounding the abuse and the teacher-as-savior have been explored in many ways. The only thing this film does differently is cast black actors and cultures in the film instead of white ones. It doesn’t branch out very far from the norm, which suggests and over-reliance on familiarity to sell the story.

The only thing that tempers such criticism of the screenplay is that it’s based on a true story. Matter of fact, it’s “Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”, an obnoxious subtitle that does little but call attention to the fact that it’s adapted, which is entirely unnecessary.

Director Lee Daniels allows his actors to provide full throttle, credible performances, guiding them to better work. His success is entirely in that perspective, as the rest of the film doesn’t look or feel very special. Daniels does attempt to create resonance and style with his use of flashbacks to frame Precious’ various attempts to disconnect from reality and escape her horrific situation. Other than a couple of them working exceedingly well (such as one where she flashes to a photo shoot), the rest come at rather strange junctures and feel spliced in, not lived in.

It’s a noble effort and one I applaud for trying to take a new tack on the story. However, aside from the performances and a few strong, minor editorial decisions, Precious is a pedestrian film of wonderful intentions.