How much can you handle? That’s the central theme of Precious, a Job parable without religious overtones. It’s more of a fairy tale, complete with an ogre who will whoop your ass unless she get the welfare. Precious is a child with children of her own, accepting hope not out some naive belief that perseverance will champion the day, but because she literally has absolutely nothing else to hold on to. It’s Greek tragedy for BET — harsh, unyielding, and unwilling to give easy answers or a shiny happy resolution. The story delves into after-school special territory with raw anger — for every Dangerous Minds aphorism, there’s a spit-in-your-face, gouge-out-your-eyes cruel truth. And those aren’t even the more scarring moments — it’s the casually carried out horrors that kick you in the gut. You don’t watch Precious for the plot; it’s just a slightly repackaged version of every harrowing film that blossoms in time for awards season. You watch for the performances, and by God, there is some fine actressin’ of the highest degree going on here. Precious easily contains one of the best performances of this decade, but it is little other than a ghastly tale acted at a breathtaking caliber.
Claireece “Precious” Jones (newcomer Gabourey “Gabby” Sibide) has it rough. I mean, spectacularly rough. She falls through the shitty tree and hits every fucking branch on the way down, bounces, and breaks her back on the trunk. She’s a morbidly obese 16-year-old struggling through middle school who gets suspended for being pregnant with her second child. She’s never had a boyfriend. It’s her mother’s boyfriend Carl — Precious’ own father — who rapes her in the middle of the night and gets her pregnant. TWICE. Her mother Mary (Mo’Nique), an abusive ghoul parasitically living off the welfare checks that she collects for Precious and her granddaughter/stepdaughter, squats in their Section 8 apartment. The granddaughter’s name is Mongo, which is short for Mongoloid, because she’s developmentally disabled. Mary’s mother keeps the child with her, save the few days when the welfare counselor comes around for inspections. Precious’s old principal gets her enrolled in the Each One, Teach One program, an alternative school that caters towards troubled girls. See, not everything’s dreary and miserable in her life. But most of it is. Keep reading. Precious comes home from a lengthy stay in the hospital after she gives birth prematurely to a healthy baby named Abdul. After her mother attacks her and the baby, Precious ends up homeless for a time. And from there, things actually manage to get worse.
What’s admirable about the script from Geoffrey Fletcher (based on the original novel Push by Sapphire) is that it never lets the cliches and platitudes rule the film. I made the Dangerous Minds crack, but truthfully it’s more like Lean on Me or Stand and Deliver. Her teacher Ms. Rain (Paula Patton) genuinely cares about her girls but doesn’t brook any bullshit. Sure, there are scenes where she tearfully stares into Precious’ eyes and tells her she does matter and she is loved. Yet the students of the Each One, Teach One program feel like real girls. They talk shit to each other and make fun of each other, but then they show up at the hospital for Precious. It’s not nearly as sentimental as it might seem. Precious doesn’t talk much, but she fights back, which I liked. It would have been easy to show her sadly eating or taking the fat jokes from the other students. But she’ll suddenly bust someone in the head for talking smack. She’s a victim, but not in every scene, which adds a complexity that allows the film to be more than just a sad-fat-girl-tale like She’s Come Undone. Because frankly, Precious has a fuck of a lot more shit on her plate than just being massively overweight.
And that something she has to deal with comes in the sweaty, menacing cunt of a mother Mary. I haven’t seen parental figure imbued with so much casual vitriol since Doyle in Sling Blade. She’s Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest smothered in gov’ment cheese, a Shere Khan pantheress who’ll sit lazily swaying its tail before pouncing and clawing your fucking eyes out. Mary loathes Precious, because she had the audacity to get pregnant by her boyfriend (nevermind the unspeakable incestuous rape). She sits on the couch, cigarette drooping from the corner of her mouth, and like an approaching storm cloud, she builds and builds her rage and indignation until she explodes. She flings pots, books, glassware. But what makes Mary so frightening is that she can play sweet. She can fake it, wear nicety like a store-bought mask, and then pitch it aside when the coast is clear. She dawdles her disabled granddaughter on her knee for the nice welfare counselor, but the second she disappears, Mary tosses the toddler toward the end of the couch like a cushion. Mary is a monster that Precious has to slay, but Daniels — through Sapphire’s original story — is too smart to try to kill her off like a lazy Lifetime plot.
Everyone in the film is outstanding. Yup, I said everyone, dammit. Mariah Carey gets mocked for being wooden, but she’s playing a welfare supervisor named Ms. Weiss who’s stopped giving a shit. She ratchets up the Brooklyn just shy of Rosie Perez and strips off all the niceties to play the stone face who may or may not give Precious and her mother the money. Sherri Shepherd surprised the shit out of me as an administrator for the alternative school. And without his fisheye lens, I hardly recognized Lenny Kravitz as the affectionate Nurse John, who takes care of Precious when she’s hospitalized. Precious’s fellow misfits are all outstanding, with particular notice to Xosha Roquemore as Joann, she of the infamous “my favorite color is fluorescent beige” line in the trailer.
But even with all the fancy side fixings, the movie reminds us it is always about Precious versus her mother. Gabby Sidibe is wonderful as Precious, not for the moments where she suffers, but the moments where she shines, particularly for a first timer. Anyone can play depressive. But the Oscar might as well be polished up and handed to Mo’Nique for her portrayal of Mary. Most black actresses, particularly those who happen to be pleasantly puffy, tend to get relegated to roles like “Mmm-hhm Friend” and “No You Din’t Lady.” But villains are always the juiciest roles, and Mary would make Miranda Priestly shit a sweatshirt covered in kittens. Halle Berry might have set the precedent and Jennifer Hudson might have tainted the honor, but Mo’Nique earned this with every sweaty grunt and hideous scowl.
There are two scenes in the film that pretty much guarantee this. Precious comes home from the hospital with her baby boy and Mary’s waiting in her chair, wreathed in cigarette smoke. She seems docile, almost sweet, and asks to hold the baby. Even I screamed “DON’T GO IN THERE, GIRL!” Precious lets her mother hold the baby while she starts to fix dinner. Mary springs up from the chair to hurl a glass at Precious, and lets the barely month-old infant topple from her lap onto the floor. Even knowing that it’s coming does nothing to take away from this excruciating moment. Precious and Mary fight each other, drawing blood, and Precious flees down several staircases, tumbling at the end and falling on the baby. I thought, oh, God, they actually killed the baby. But no, everyone’s OK. Right before Mary drops her television from the top floor. The second scene occurs in Ms. Weiss’s office. Mary has begged to be reunited with Precious and her grandbabies. Mary sits there, enduring the accusations of sexual and physical abuse, and her response will make your heart and stomach wrench. It’s part accusation, part threat, and part tearful confession. But the entire time you realize, her entire motivation is to get a welfare check. She doesn’t care about Precious, just the money. It’s fucking brilliant.
Lee Daniels fought to get Precious made for practically no money, but he’s the man who produced both Monster’s Ball and The Woodsman (seriously, why the fuck haven’t you seen this yet? Go now, watch Kevin Bacon and Mos Def do some actressin’ goddamn you). Only after the Sundance success did Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry come in to brand this project and champion it. So for those of you who are staying away because of the big glowing O and the sloppy TP stamped on the side, give it up. Precious isn’t a property of either of them, though it does share their melodramatic penchant for depressive heroines and violent family struggles. They only helped get it distributed. Daniels imbues his film with a sense of hateful rawness and manages to scrub the sentimentality until it bleeds. Buoyed by awe-inspiring performances, Precious is a movie about survival rather than hope or redemption, reminding me of Requiem for a Dream, in that I will never watch this again.