Lionsgate // 2009 // 109 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // March 1st, 2010
"Love ain't done nothing for me. Love beat me, raped me, called me an animal, make me feel worthless. Make me sick."
She's 16 and still in junior high.
She's morbidly obese.
For the second time.
By her father.
Her first child has Down syndrome.
She's Claireece "Precious" Jones, a black girl who lives in Harlem with her abusive mother in 1987. Precious' future is already mapped out: muddle through school a little while longer, then drop out, wait on her mother full time, and live on welfare.
When the principal of her school learns Precious is pregnant again, she recommends that the girl go to an alternative high school, Each One Teach One. Sensing that this might offer her a chance to do something with her life, she enrolls and ends up being taught by Ms. Rains (Paula Patton, Mirrors). Slowly, Precious learns to read and write, and she starts to believe that life might hold more possibilities than she's come to believe.
But there are a few more surprises in store for Precious -- some good, some bad, all of them life changing.
You've seen this person, though you've likely given at best a passing glance. The dead, dull eyes, the sullen pout, the carelessly overweight body made heavier by the leaden gait, the ill-fitting, dirty clothes and slovenly, unkempt appearance, the aura of utter hopelessness -- if you notice this person at all, these are the things you'll see. If you give a second thought, it might be one of contempt or one of pity. This person is not of your world, and you're glad of that.
How could anyone love such a person?
Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire is the story of that person.
Precious is a devastating story of abuse and survival acted to perfection by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe and Mo'Nique, who until now has been better known as a comedian and TV hostess. Sensitively directed by Lee Daniels, Precious is an enormously affecting film, one of the best of 2009.
In the supplements, author Sapphire explains that after the book was published, she received several offers to turn it into a film. She rejected them; she was afraid they wouldn't do right by her story. Fortunately, she gave her OK to Lee Daniels. It's difficult material, and Precious could have been heavy-handed slop, a Hallmark Channel special event about the power of love and learning, dedicated teachers swooping in like angels, another hackneyed "inspirational" story; worse, it could have been exploitative. Sapphire worked closely with screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher, and Daniels' touch is delicate and honest, and shows an acute understanding of this young woman and her circumstances.
We frequently see Precious' innermost dreams, and many of these are what a typical teen would imagine for herself -- she's a movie queen greeting fans at a premiere or the star of her own music video. Others are far more sad and unnerving: As she prepares for her first day at her new school, she looks in the mirror and sees a pretty white girl looking back at her. But her most consistent fantasy is just to have a nice boyfriend and a normal life -- the very things many movie heroines run away from are the things Precious craves, and it's touching to see this child-woman longing for mere acceptance.
Few mainstream American films address the topics of child rape and incest as frankly as Precious does. These are ugly topics, and Daniels goes after then head on, neither mitigating the horrors nor mining them for shock value. We are also spared simplistic moralizing and lectures on the terrible effects of these acts. We don't need them. We see the damage in this young girl's eyes.
And yet, Precious is not a bleak film, nor is it a film of manufactured hopes and tacked on uplift. Daniels and his cast find not only the humanity in these characters, but the humor, as well. It's hardly a laugh-out-loud comedy, but there are some very funny moments to be found amidst the pathos, many involving Precious' interactions with her classmates.
At times, the film flags a bit, with both the script and direction becoming a bit overreaching and, well, precious. Precious' fantasies are an integral part of the story and are generally handled well. But in one scene, Precious and her mother are watching the Sophia Loren film Two Women in Italian with subtitles. This leads to Precious imagining her life as a black and white Italian movie, with subtitled dialogue. It's an amusing bit, but one that's already been done to death, and it seems out of place in a film as fresh as this; plus, you have to wonder why the illiterate Precious and her mother, who's likely just as uneducated, would be watching an old subtitled movie at all, particularly one as sobering as Two Women, when the TV is otherwise constantly tuned to game shows and sitcoms.
Geoffrey Fletcher's script is overall excellent and true, though here and there, bits of dialogue seem inauthentic. At one point, Precious is describing her home life and says she thinks she might forever be sitting in her mother's home "with the shades drawn." It's poetic, but an oddly sophisticated and somewhat antiquated term for her to use. Also, Sapphire's attempt to use the story to comment on the many indignities suffered by young girls such as Precious comes close to bordering on excessive. Precious is overweight, pregnant, suffered sexual, physical, and verbal at the hands of her parents, and she has a child with Down syndrome. A twist near the end piles on a new horror that makes Precious seem less like a marginalized, victimized child than a modern-day Job. This final tragedy, which would have had a very different impact at the time the film is set than it does today, also doesn't seem to be explored enough.
What never disappoints are the performances. Gabourey Sidibe and Mo'Nique embody their characters, giving completely courageous, powerhouse portrayals.
Sidibe is extraordinary, making Precious' transformation beautifully natural and completely believable. Precious is her first professional acting job, and her emotionally wrenching performance is a revelation.
Mo'Nique plays Precious' reprehensible mother with bravura. Another actress might have tried to soften the character, but Mo'Nique fearlessly gives us a woman so despicable, she is ultimately a tragic figure. Sapphire praises her, noting, "There's a way that African Americans have been so protective of their image on screen, women haven't had that freedom to go where Mo'Nique went."
Paula Patton doesn't succumb to the magical teacher stereotype as Ms. Rain; she's a dedicated professional and caring human being, and well represents the hundreds of people who work with children like Precious. A de-glammed Mariah Carey takes a giant step in erasing forever the stench of Glitter with a solid portrayal of a social worker.
Lionsgate does laudable work on this release. The image is very strong, particularly for a film with so many dimly lit scenes. Detail is excellent. Audio is a very good DTS Master 5.1 track. The Blu-ray includes a solid slate of extras, starting with an easy, enthusiastic, and informative feature-length commentary by director Lee Daniels. A number of well-done featurettes offer interviews and clips.
* "From Push to Precious" (15:00) -- Focuses on Sapphire and how she came to write the novel Push, as well as why she decided to let Lee Daniels direct the adaptation after turning down so many other offers; screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher also discusses his work on the film.
* "A Precious Ensemble" (17:30) -- Daniels, Sapphire, and various cast members, including Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Carey, and Patton, discuss casting and the characterizations.
* "Oprah and Tyler: A Project of Passion" (9:00) -- Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey talk about why they put their considerable clout behind this film.
* "A Conversation with Author Sapphire and Director Lee Daniels" (8:30) -- Just what it says: Daniels and Sapphire talk about the film; this conversation is a bit more informal and in-depth than the previous features.
While there's some overlap, what's evident here is that Precious was a labor of love for all involved. There is an unmistakable passion in this project that elevates it above so much of what is out there.
In addition, we get "Reflections on Precious" from Daniels, Sidibe, and Paula Patton (brief words on what they hope you take from the film), Gabourey Sidibe's audition tape, a deleted scene, and the trailer.
Challenging and disturbing, achingly sad but not depressing, Precious is one of the finest films of 2009, and this Blu-ray from Lionsgate is a great way to see it. Highly recommended.
Review content copyright © 2010 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scene
* Official Site