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109 min.
Release Date

The most amazing part of Precious is that, despite the unbelievable and unrecoverable despair shown onscreen, the film still manages to convey a sense of hope. It’s a heartwarming and painful drama that finds a way to be uplifting without resorting to any of the trite or manipulative drawbacks usually associated with this kind of story. It tackles issues of abuse and incest and teen pregnancy without pulling its punches and without rendering a kind of sappy social survey in the process. This is a gritty and unrelenting picture, but also an inspired one filled with imagination and emotional realism.

We’re told by an ungainly subtitle that the film is “Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire,” the poet who wrote the story in 1996 from an assemblage of her own experiences as a social worker and teacher. The film earned oodles of deserved praise at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, taking home both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize for best drama. Its director, Lee Daniels, made only one film prior, called Shadowboxer, a drama that featured Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr. as hitmen lovers. Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry gave Precious their support, signing on as executive producers, which certainly didn’t hurt when securing the film’s distribution deal through Lions Gate Entertainment. And now it’s one of the must-see films of 2009.

The setting is Harlem in the 1980s, in the troubled home of Claireece “Precious” Jones, played by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe. She’s an overweight sixteen-year-old, pregnant with her second child, and both were conceived through rape with her scarcely seen father. Precious’ first child, who her unrelentingly cruel mother has dubbed “Mongol,” as in Mongoloid, was born with Down Syndrome and lives with her grandmother. Abused on a daily basis, the nearly illiterate teen is nonetheless gifted in math. The principal at her inner-city high school directs Precious to an alternative learning center that will help develop her reading skills; there, she meets Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), who refuses to allow the troubled girl to fail. Life has other plans.

At home, Precious can’t help but want to escape. Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher send her into an escapist fantasy whenever the abuse becomes too much. She sees herself dolled up on the red carpet, or the subject of a posh photo shoot, smiling and happy. But even these daydreams have been polluted by her mother’s insults and attacks for “stealing” her man away. When Precious looks into her mirror, she sees only her ideal: a thin Caucasian woman with long blonde hair. Of course, she won’t quite be a whole person until she sees herself in her reflection.

No actors are credited in the opening titles, so there’s no reason for the audience to believe these characters are anything but what we’re seeing. Indeed, Sidibe simply is Precious. Joining her, Daniels has filled his picture with celebrities, underplaying their roles and allowing them to fully disappear into their performances. I did not find out until after my screening, for example, that Mariah Carey plays the social worker that listens to Precious unload her life’s troubles. There’s even a line where Precious asks about the race of Carey’s character as if Sidibe herself couldn’t believe where the pop star had vanished to. Rocker Lenny Kravitz also has a role as a male nurse, but those of us who are used to seeing him behind those massive shades cannot be blamed for not recognizing him in the film.

The most impressive turn of acting comes from comedian Mo’Nique, who genuinely makes the audience hate her through her staggering performance as Precious’ mother. She won a Special Jury Prize for it at Sundance, and it’s much deserved. Her character does some horrible, unforgivable things onscreen—everything from verbal to sexual abuse. That she makes it all believable is amazing. Daniels is something of an expert at making attractive people discard their glamour for some fine acting. He was also the producer of Monster’s Ball, the film where Halle Berry dove into dark places to find herself an Oscar. Expect the same for Sidibe and Mo’Nique.

Precious is a film that soars on its ability to draw us into its agonizing world, to make us identify with characters that we might not be able to under other circumstances. And though the picture showcases an ensemble of great acting, this is a film about more than just great performances. It’s a film that will incite a fervent reaction. Some see it as a social commentary, others as a political one. Regardless of how you read it, Daniels’ direction maintains challenging and emotionally powerful storytelling. Without pampering the audience, rather quite the opposite, this film proves to be one of the most affecting, most human films in recent memory.

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