The face of Clareece “Precious” Jones is gloomy and stone-cold. Frozen by years of unfathomable brutality, the tired-eyed Harlem teen struggles to find the joy she needs to melt the pain and find her smile.
But at the disturbing, shake-you-up core of gay director Lee Daniels’ gritty and hyped film, titled after its lead’s nickname – “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” – is something just as, if not more, horrific: The mother behind Precious’ pain. As monstrous as they come, she’s a sludgy, hate-spewing soul, grotesquely portrayed by the Oscar-bound comedian Mo’Nique in a career-changing role that’s as grisly as they come. With pit hair and bad skin, she has a wickedly vicious temper that makes Faye Dunaway in “Mommie Dearest” look like Marge Simpson. The abuse is relentless, but this is a life Precious knows, sadly, all too well; she’s a mere tool to mother Mary’s well-being – impregnated by her father so mom can collect welfare, Precious takes on the matriarchal role while Mary sits back watching game shows in her own filth and demands dinner from her daughter.
Expectedly, Precious looks run-down, much too lifeless for a girl her age (she’s only 16). But brimming beneath her used, powerless, unloved self – she’s also illiterate and overweight – is a hopeful, vibrant soul full of big dreams, a destiny she can only achieve with a push. When life gets too tough, she leaves it and conceives a fantasy world where she’s a beloved big-name star, a sexy, white supermodel or a cute, light-skinned boy’s dream girl. It’s fleeting, but a sliver of hope, and this transcendence brings Precious closer to breaking free of the bleak life she’s been accustomed to for so long. Too long.
To schlepp the stubborn, jaded teen out of this hell hole is a compassionate, warm-and-fuzzy lesbian teacher (a spirited, beautiful and stereotype-defying Paula Patton), an affable, handsome male nurse (Lenny Kravitz) and a pushy social worker (Mariah Carey, remarkably void of her pop diva ego). All bring hope, confidence and grace to Precious’ ruined world, and to the dreariness of Daniels’ film – based on Sapphire’s 1996 book “Push,” which is, believe it or not, darker than its screen adaptation.
“Precious” still takes a piece out of you, though. Its namesake – played like a pro by Gabourey Sidibe, a first-time actor who throws herself into this role like she’s been there before – is like a lifeless body left out in the cold. And the saddest part is, you almost feel like she’d be better off that way.
The 24-year-old Sidibe has award-worthy written all over her dynamite achievement, and Daniels should be praised for finding such tour-de-force talent. Also a revelation is the pitch-perfect Carey, who looks frumpier than pre-fame Susan Boyle and is wholly believable as the empathic caseworker. “Glitter,” what?
“Precious” is obviously a personal piece for Daniels, who was once a victim of child abuse, too. So he lovingly nurtures it, avoiding melodramatic muck, but pushing it deep into our psyche with unflinching, thoughtful, bold-faced execution, down to the dreary, dull-looking cinematography – that lighting gives it a fitting drabness – and unassuming casting choices. Even a bluesy Mary J. Blige song about seeing the world in all its bright, beautiful colors is stunning.
What Daniels (best known for directing 2005’s “Shadowboxer” and producing “Monster’s Ball”) has wonderfully rendered is a poetic piece that’s a painful, hard-to-stomach triumph – one of the best films of the year – that’ll break you and lift you, all the while showing the rebirth of a soul. Even after all this time (an early press screening took place several months ago), it still hauntingly lingers.
Just writing this review conjures the drained emotions that I felt then; I’d been dragged through a sewer – and then rinsed off and set in the sun to dry out. I can replay the quasi-horror movie in my head because each scene is as strong, if not stronger, than the one before it. And it all builds to an especially riveting finale where Mo’Nique justifies her toxic ways to Carey, who tries so hard to fight back tears but can’t. That, like the rest of Daniels’ harrowing and inspiring masterpiece, isn’t something you forget.