Of all the films released in 2009, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire is most likely to stick in your craw, pitch a tent and refuse to leave. In adapting Sapphire's novel, screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher and director Lee Daniels (Shadowboxer) put front and center an everyday unsung hero, her horrifying circumstances, and her dark, narrow path toward something better.
The plight of the protagonist, Claireece Precious Jones, is articulated early on by her school principal: "You're sixteen. You're in junior high school. And you're pregnant with your second child." And that's not the worst of it: both children were conceived by paternal rape. Plagued by suicidal thoughts and all-but-impossible dreams of fame, fortune, and a light-skinned boyfriend out of a BET music video, the overweight Precious languishes in the squalor of a Harlem walk-up, circa 1987, under the thumb of her cruel, fearsome mother Mary (Mo'Nique, in a demonstration of startling range).
Gabourey Sidibe brilliantly embodies the understandably bitter Precious, who shares her heartbreaking despair through extensive narration. Daniels goes a step further with sometimes unnecessary or incongruous visualizations of Precious' dreams of being someone else and being somewhere else (the most egregious finds Precious and her mother entering into Vittorio De Sica's Two Women). The film's visual darkness, narrative punishment and use of fantasy sequences consistently evokes Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, itself adapted from a novel depicting life in New York's underbelly. Along these lines, Daniels teases class and racial tensions with televised glimpses of Oliver North and Mary's favorite TV show: The $100,000 Pyramid.
Precious begins her longest journey toward hope with the single step of showing up to an alternative school, where patient teacher Blu Rain (Paula Patton) makes a difference with a class of a half-dozen students. As Ms. Rain explains to Precious, "'Alternative’ means 'a choice,'" a luxury Precious has rarely enjoyed. Even as the Each One Teach One school extends hope, Precious continues to suffer psychological abuse from the unholy Mary, who avers, "School ain't gonna help nothing!" Still, there's a glimmer of sympathy for this devil, who, after all, is herself a victim of abuse from a monstrous mate who remains mostly off-screen.
Precious is a primal experience that goes for the gut and not the brain. The catharsis for many viewers can be one only of liberal guilt, but to dismiss the film on that point ignores the real lives of teen mothers, incest survivors, the obese, the suicidal, the functionally illiterate, and those in depressed America who don't find their ghettos fabulous. Their stories rarely find such powerful expression, much less Oscar talk. Sadly and truthfully, the film ends by holding out only the thinnest sliver of hope, but there can be no question that Precious is both a potent character study and cause for reflection on the unending need for compassionate social work serving those pushed to the margins.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]