The face of Claireece “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 leadÕs nickname — ÒPrecious: Based on the Novel ÔPushÕ by SapphireÓ — is something just as, if not more, horrific: The mother behind PreciousÕs pain. As monstrous as they come, sheÕs a sludgy, hate-spewing soul, grotesquely portrayed by the Oscar-bound comedian MoÕNique 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 ÒMommie DearestÓ look like Marge Simpson. The abuse is relentless, but this is a life Precious knows, sadly, all too well; sheÕs a mere tool to mother MaryÕs 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 (sheÕs only 16). But brimming beneath her used, powerless, unloved self — sheÕs 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 sheÕs a beloved big-name star, a sexy, white supermodel or a cute, light-skinned boy’s dream girl. ItÕs fleeting, but a sliver of hope, and this transcendence brings Precious closer to breaking free of the bleak life sheÕs 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 (a barely recognizable Lenny Kravitz) and a pushy social worker (Mariah Carey, remarkably void of her pop diva ego). All bring hope, confidence and grace to PreciousÕ ruined world, and to the dreariness of DanielsÕ film — based on SapphireÕs 1996 book ÒPush,Ó which is, believe it or not, darker than its screen adaptation.
Still, ÒPreciousÓ will suck you up and swallow you. Its namesake — played like a pro by Gabourey Sidibe, a first-time actor who throws herself into this role like sheÕs been there before — is like a lifeless body left out in the cold. And the saddest part is, you almost feel like sheÕd be better off that way.
Sidibe, only 24, 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. ÒGlitter,Ó what?
ÒPreciousÓ 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 thatÕs a painful, hard-to-stomach triumph — one of the best films of the year — thatÕll 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; IÕd been dragged through a sewer — and then rinsed off and set in the sun to dry out. I can replay the 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 MoÕNique justifies her toxic ways to Carey, who tries so hard to fight back tears but can’t. That, like the rest of DanielsÕ harrowing and inspiring masterpiece, isnÕt something you forget.