Claireece Jones, the Harlem teenager at the center of “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” lives in a world of specific and overwhelming horror. She goes by her middle name, Precious, which seems like a cruel taunt, since nearly everyone around her thinks she’s worthless and lets her know it.
Precious’s mother, Mary, played with operatic fervor by the comedian Mo’Nique, dispenses a daily ration of humiliation and abuse. The constant verbal and physical violence she directs at her daughter would be shocking even without the monstrous crime that hangs over their dim, dirty apartment like a cloud. Precious, overweight and illiterate — and played by an extraordinarily poised first-time actress named Gabourey Sidibe — has a young daughter and is pregnant for a second time. The father in both cases, who is nowhere to be seen, is Precious’s father too.
This information is bluntly presented at the beginning of Sapphire’s 1996 novel, a first-person narrative composed in rough, stylized dialect. In Lee Daniels’s risky, remarkable film adaptation, written by Geoffrey Fletcher, the facts of Precious’s life are also laid out with unsparing force (though not in overly graphic detail). But just as “Push” achieves an eloquence that makes it far more than a fictional diary of extreme dysfunction, so too does “Precious” avoid the traps of well-meaning, preachy lower-depths realism. It howls and stammers, but it also sings.
Mr. Daniels, directing his second feature (after the vivid and eccentric “Shadowboxer”), is not afraid to mix styles and genres. In his determination to do justice to Claireece’s inner life, as well as to her circumstances, he allows splashes of fantasy, daubs of humor and floods of unabashed melodrama into the drab landscape of her struggle. Ugliness is all around her, but beauty is there too.
There is something almost reckless about this filmmaker’s eclecticism, which extends from the casting — pop stars and television personalities alongside trained and untrained actors — to the visual textures and the soundtrack music. “Precious” is a hybrid, a mash-up that might have been ungainly, but that manages to be graceful instead. It’s partly a bootstrap drama of resilience and redemption, complete with a hardworking teacher (Paula Patton) wrangling a classroom full of disadvantaged girls. It’s also the nearly Gothic story of a child tormented by the cruelty of adults, as lurid as a Victorian potboiler or a modern-day tell-all memoir.
Above all “Precious” is unabashedly populist in its potent emotional appeal — not for nothing did Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey sign on as executive producers around the time of the film’s debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January — and at the same time determined to challenge its audience’s complacency as only a genuine work of art can.
Mary, brimming with rage, thwarted love and plain meanness, is a character bound to provoke discomfort. Even otherwise misogynistic hip-hop artists will pay tribute to the heroism of African-American mothers, and to see that piety so thoroughly dispensed with is downright shocking.
Other provocations are more subtle but no less pointed. There are virtually no men in this movie. Precious’s father is glimpsed briefly in flashbacks of his assaults on her, and in the fantasy sequences that provide escape from her pain Precious hobnobs with handsome boys, but otherwise the only male character of significance is a hospital worker played by Lenny Kravitz. Otherwise, Precious’s cosmos, for better and for worse, is a universe of women: the social worker (Mariah Carey, scrubbed of any vestige of divahood); the teacher, Ms. Rain; her co-worker in the remedial education program, played by the comedian and talk show host Sherri Shepherd; and Precious’s fellow students.
These characters all can be seen as surrogate mothers, aunts and sisters, who together provide Precious with a more functional family (to say the least) than what she has at home. But their love is also enabled by institutions and government policies. An unstated but self-evident moral of “Precious,” set during Ronald Reagan’s presidency and based on a book published in the year of Bill Clinton’s welfare reform, is that government can provide not only a safety net, but also, in small and consequential ways, a lifeline.
I will leave it for others to parse the truth or the timeliness of this message. But “Precious” is, in any case, less the examination of a social problem than the illumination of an individual’s painful and partial self-realization. Inarticulate and emotionally shut down, her massive body at once a prison and a hiding place, Precious is also perceptive and shrewd, possessed of talents visible only to those who bother to look. At its plainest and most persuasive, her story is that of a writer discovering a voice. “These people talked like TV stations I didn’t even watch,” she remarks of Ms. Rain and her lover (Kimberly Russell), displaying her awakening literary intelligence even as she marvels at the discovery of her ignorance.
And Ms. Sidibe, perhaps the least-known member of this movie’s unusual cast, is also the glue that holds it together. Nimble and self-assured as Mr. Daniels’s direction may be, he could not make you believe in “Precious” unless you were able to believe in Precious herself. You will.
“Precious” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has frank depictions of emotional and physical violence, including the sexual abuse of a child.
Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
Opens on Friday in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta.
Directed by Lee Daniels; written by Geoffrey Fletcher, based on the novel “Push” by Sapphire; director of photography, Andrew Dunn; edited by Joe Klotz; music by Mario Grigorov; production designer, Roshelle Berliner; produced by Mr. Daniels, Sarah Siegel-Magness and Gary Magness; released by Lionsgate. Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes.
WITH: Mo’Nique (Mary), Paula Patton (Ms. Rain), Maria Carey (Ms. Weiss), Sherri Shepherd (Cornrows), Lenny Kravitz (Nurse John), Kimberly Russell (Katherine) and Gabourey Sidibe (Precious).
Mo'Nique, newcomer Gabourey Sidibe and Mariah Carey keep "Precious" from becoming a social tract
By Stephanie ZacharekHow much bad stuff can possibly happen to one protagonist? In that contest, Precious -- the Harlem teenager at the heart of "Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire" -- ranks right up there with any Thomas Hardy heroine. Sixteen-year-old Clareece "Precious" Jones, played by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, is pregnant with her second child -- she gave birth to the first, a girl with Down syndrome, at age 12. The father of both children is her own father, who has been sexually abusing her since she was a toddler. Her mother, Mary (Mo'Nique), resents her, considering her a rival for her man's sexual attention, and abuses her physically, sexually, verbally and emotionally. She also tries to keep Precious -- who is obese and unable to read -- out of school, asserting that she's stupid and will never amount to anything.
That's a lot of adversity to overcome, a virtual trauma pile-up, and you could argue that Precious' story -- as it's told in Sapphire's 1996 novel and as it's adapted here -- would actually be more effective if some of these dire circumstances had been dialed down just a bit, leaving some room to focus on Precious as an individual rather than as a symbolic victim. In the novel, Sapphire seems to be striving to pack in the greatest number of personal and social problems for maximum heartstring-tugging, point-making value, and the ultimate solutions to Precious' complex, anguishing problems -- education, the love of a few key people who genuinely care -- come off as too pat.
That problem extends, to a point, to this movie version, directed by Lee Daniels. (Geoffrey Fletcher adapted the screenplay, and its executive producers include dual powerhouses Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry.) But the performances are so plainspoken and direct that they manage to push the material beyond the confines of a mere social-problem tract -- as played by the cast, these characters aren't symbols of inner-city hardship, but people. When we first meet Sidibe's Precious -- the story is set in 1987 Harlem -- she's a girl who might be better off, practically speaking, if she could just close herself off from the world. But Precious isn't closed off, as Sidibe plays her: She's cautiously expressive; she may be watchful, but she's curious, too. She shows flashes of a sense of humor, even though she can barely afford to have one. And she doesn't mind going to school: For one thing, she has a crush on her math teacher, and she harbors cheerful daydreams that he'll whisk her off to a nice life in the white-bread suburbs.
That's a world away from her life at home. In the evenings, she does her best to cook meals for her sour-spirited mother, who berates her with a degree of cruelty that's almost unbearable to watch. (Mo'Nique plays the role with unnerving efficiency, her face a mask of nearly immobile hardness.) Precious tunes out, when she can, by drifting into escapist fantasies, most of which involve an imaginary "light-skinned boyfriend with nice hair" and an array of diva-like costumes, accompanied by the adoration of camera flashes, though Precious has no skills upon which to build that fame -- in fact, she can't even read.
Fortunately for Precious (though admittedly a little too late -- we're talking about a 16-year-old girl who's unable to recognize simple words like "at"), a tough-minded principal urges her to switch to a special school. There, enrolled in a pre-GED class taught by an unsentimental but compassionate teacher, Blu Rain (Paula Patton, in a meticulously controlled, no-nonsense performance), Precious is finally able to live a life in the world, instead of only in her mind.
There are other links in Precious' support net: Lenny Kravitz shows up as the marvelously named "Nurse John," the dreamboat health professional who befriends Precious when he assists in the birth of her second child. And Mariah Carey, in a superb, tough little performance, plays a welfare worker, Mrs. Weiss, who tugs like a terrier to get Precious to open up. Carey's approach to the character is both hard-nosed and delicate: She understands the idea of intimidation as an act of kindness.
What Daniels seems to recognize, perhaps even unconsciously, is that even though this is supposed to be Precious' story, for most of it she's a passive, if sensitive, receptor: The forces swirling around her provide most of the drama's dynamics. And within that context, Sidibe's performance is understated but alert. It's not her line delivery that gets to you, but the cautious curve of her smile, a smile in which she indulges only occasionally. When we see her going off to her first day of school, the blue plastic beads she wears around her neck are a dash of visual confidence, offsetting the shyness of her lumbering carriage.
Daniels -- who produced "Monster's Ball" and directed a previous feature, the 2005 drama "The Shadowboxer" -- indulges too frequently in gratuitous shaky camera work, and the picture overall has a dull, grayish look. Those stylistic choices are predictable, but in other ways, Daniels is sensitively attuned to the story he's telling: He takes care to keep the long list of horrific details of Precious' life from being too relentless -- he doesn't flinch from them, but he doesn't seek to punish us with Precious' tribulations, either. The actors are in tune, too, knowing how to break the story's thunderclouds: At one point Precious emerges from her baffled silence to ask Mrs. Weiss outright, "What color are you, anyway?" "Precious" is a blunt, effective piece of work that succeeds not because it paints a realistic, believable picture of inner-city hardship, but in spite of it. Its characters are rescued, perhaps just barely, from the worst fate imaginable: that of being case studies.