Lionsgate // 2009 // 109 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // March 9th, 2010
Life is hard. Life is short. Life is painful. Life is rich. Life is...Precious.
"There's always something wrong with these tests. These tests paint a picture of me with no brain. These tests paint a picture of me and my mother, my whole family as less than dumb. Just ugly black grease, need to be wiped away, find a job for."
Claireece "Precious" Jones is a 16-year-old African American teenager whose life is about as miserable as it is humanly possible for one's life to be. She lives with a mother (Mo'Nique) who constantly belittles and abuses her. She has been raped by her father on a regular basis ever since she was a young girl. Her first child by her father was born with Down Syndrome. Now she's pregnant a second time. She's morbidly obese and can barely read or write. She has no friends in school. Her life is a living hell in almost every way. Now, she's in an alternative school -- Each One Teach One -- and a teacher (Paula Patton, Swing Vote) and a social worker (Mariah Carey, Glitter) are reaching out to Precious in an attempt to help her turn her life around. Their efforts are clearly beginning to enable Precious to pick up the pieces of her broken life. Does Precious have a chance at breaking free, or will she be pulled back into the never-ending cycle of horror that is her everyday life?
Just after my first viewing of Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire (which we're just going to refer to as Precious from here on out), I had somewhat conflicted feelings about the movie. On the one hand, I had been intensely moved by the performances. On the other hand, I had the nagging sense that the story was just a little too contrived, the tragedy of this girl's life just a little too horrific in every possible way to be believable. I wrestled back and forth with my feelings, attempting to come to terms with whether or not I liked the film. I finally decided that the virtues overwhelmed the problems I had with the movie. However, when I learned that I would be viewing the film a second time to review the DVD, I feared that a repeat viewing might further accentuate the flaws. But you know what? That wasn't the case. Upon watching the film again, I found that Precious moved me even more intensely this time than it did the first time around.
I'd like to address the complaint that Precious is contrived and emotionally exploitative, as it's a complaint that I had for a while. On the one hand, the film certainly does seem to go out of its way to pile almost every imaginable atrocity onto this poor girl's life. I can understand why this bothers some viewers, despite the fact that there are undoubtedly real-life scenarios very much this that truly do exist. But upon viewing the film a second time, what struck me was not the forced nature of the premise but rather the truthfulness of the execution. Are the tragedies of the film a little too neatly organized? Maybe. After that, the artifice stops and reality sets in, as the film does an admirable job of attempting to make Precious and her world as genuine and believable as possible. Precious earns the right to explore the emotionally charged issues that it raises.
The film works in large part due to the performances, which are solid at worst and remarkable at best. Gabourey Sidibe's turn as the title character is a strong anchor for the film, a heartbreaking and heartfelt performance that's so dead-on it's almost painful to watch. Sidibe so effectively depicts the soul-crushing personal hell that she is living in that it's genuinely disarming when she gets the opportunity to demonstrate a bit of joy and warmth (as in her colorful fantasy sequences or in some of the scenes she shares with her Each One Teach One classmates). Part of the reason the performance works so well is due to the fact that Sidibe and the filmmakers never attempt to make the character particularly "cute" or "endearing" in a superficial way as part of some cheap attempt to generate pity. There's never a moment where the character feels less than real.
Good as Sidibe is, the most memorable performance in the film is delivered by Mo'Nique, who rips into her part with a monstrous fury that's nothing short of terrifying. The mother is a vile human being in almost every way, a genuine monster whose behavior is well beyond appalling on a regular basis. What's remarkable is not how effective Mo'Nique is at depicting the character's ugly nature, but how effectively she manages to add human dimensions to a flat-out irredeemable character as the film progresses. The intense display that occurs during the final moments of the film is one of the most powerful pieces of acting of recent years, a powerhouse finish to magnificent supporting role.
The rest of the primary cast members essentially offer essays in being warm and appealing, with Paula Patton's turn as the teacher being the standout of the bunch. Patton gently but firmly attempts to steer Precious' life in a positive direction, dealing with frustrations and roadblocks along the way with a level-headed calm. Mariah Carey is effectively naturalistic in her turn as a social worker, while Lenny Kravitz generates a few smiles with his brief but charming role as the male nurse who delivers Precious' second child.
Precious lands on DVD with a perfectly acceptable transfer, accurately conveying the film's intentionally grimy, desaturated look. The fantasy sequences have a soft warmth to them, while the "real-world" scenes look about as aesthetically drab as possible. Detail is solid and the many darker scenes benefit from strong shading. Audio is good as well, though occasionally a bit of the dialogue sounds a bit muffled. The soundtrack is mixed quite well, with the low-key sound design and score blending nicely with more assertive song selections (Patti Labelle's "It Took a Long Time" is a particularly stirring closing number).
The disc is given a pretty generous set of supplements, kicking off with an engaging audio commentary with director Lee Daniels. The featurettes are brief but informative: "From Push to Precious" (15 minutes) talks about adapting the novel into a film, "A Precious Ensemble" (18 minutes) discusses the cast, "Oprah and Tyler: A Project of Passion" (9 minutes) spends some time with the film's influential producers and "A Conversation with Lee Daniels and Sapphire" (8 minutes) features a chat between the novelist and the director. You also get Sidibe's audition, a deleted scene, and very brief "Reflections on Precious" from a few cast members.
Even though I no longer have a problem with the supposedly contrived nature of the premise, there are still moments in Precious that feel quite contrived. Every now and then, one will encounter a fleeting moment that just feels flat-out wrong. I agree with Appellate Judge Tom Becker that the scene in which Precious imagines herself and her mother in the Italian film Two Women is one such moment, as is a rape scene that intermittently cuts away to lurid close-ups of greasy bacon and eggs in a frying pan. These are only little moments, but due to the volatile nature of the material, they veer dangerously close to seriously undermining the film's credibility. Fortunately, they're few and far between enough so as not to be a terribly serious issue.
Though it has some ungainly moments that don't quite work, Precious is a deeply moving film that boasts some impressively truthful performances. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scene