At 16 years old, Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) is looking at an unbearably grim future. Illiterate, obese, and pregnant for the second time by her father, she’s sure to be kicked out of school and condemned to an existence much like her mother’s, that is, angry and tragic, barely distracted by frequent helpings of greasy food and network TV.
Precious lives in Harlem in 1987, but her trauma is hardly past. Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire is concerned with lasting effects—on individuals and especially, on communities. Precious’ pile-on of adversity comes to the big screen courtesy of celebrity “presenters” Oprah and Tyler Perry and director Lee Daniels (whose previous movie, Shadowboxer, was an excessively creepy pile-on of adversity for Cuba Gooding, Jr.). Each evening she heads home to cook dinner for her mama, Mary (Mo’Nique), who berates her viciously for being “a dumb bitch” and having “sex with my ex.” As the girl stands at the sink, washing dish after dish, her face is set in pain even as she’s determined not to show it.
The girl is aware that options exist for others, indicated in her alternating daydreams. In one, she’s whisked off to the suburbs by her feathery-haired math teacher (Bill Sage): she keeps a scrapbook in her bedroom, on whose pages she sees an animated teacher smiling alongside her own suburbanized self. At other moments—when she’s assaulted on the street by a couple of local bullies or abused by Mary—Precious pictures herself as a star, surrounded by snapping flashbulbs on a red carpet, escorted by a light-skinned beau she calls “Tom Cruise” (Barret Isaiah Mindell). These other spaces, along with her own imagined mirror reflection—blond-haired and teenishly slender—don’t so much expand Precious’ experience, as they suggest the limits imposed on her fantasy life: whiteness is the route to happiness. It’s not exactly news, but not exactly over, either.
Precious’ circumstances change dramatically when she’s offered a chance at another sort of space, that is, an alternative school where she meets the perfect teacher, clumsily named Blu Rain (Paula Patton). It’s only a matter of time before Precious learns to speak in class, identify her own talents (she cooks well), and read (in a single scene full of cuts from Precious’ eyes to words looming on the page, as Ms. Rain encourages her, and voila! the translation is made). The community of students in Ms. Rains’ class soon serves as a surrogate family, each girl thumb-nailed according to one-line self-descriptions (Rhonda’s from Jamaica, Rita’s an addict, Jermaine’s favorite color is “fluorescent beige”). They come together as they share stories from their journals, visit Precious in the hospital when her baby’s born, and also flirt with Nurse John (Lenny Kravitz). Precious gets some extra emotional help from a social worker, Ms. Weiss (Mariah Carey), whose horror at what’s happened provides a too obvious mirror for the rest of us. If this woman who’s heard it all is upset, well, then, this story is upsetting.
This sort of “help for viewers” too often slides into Lifetime movie-land. For even as Precious suffers and suffers, the problem with Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire is not the plotty excess, but instead a fundamental inelegance (you might even say this begins with the title). The film is built on a regrettable distrust of viewers to get anything, as Precious tells you what to think about what you’re watching (Ms. Rain and her partner “talk like TV channels I don’t watch”) even as scenes rely on all manner of clichés (Precious wakes from a fantasy where the boyfriend is nuzzling her as a dog on the sidewalk is nuzzling her).
The framing and reframing make Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire seem like an instructional project, a lesson for (white) folks who haven’t spent enough time in the ghetto. The film recovers briefly when Precious’ ordeal is acknowledged as being at least in part a function of her mother’s. And a scene featuring Mary’s tearful, brutal explanation to Ms. Weiss of how she could have let her husband abuse her daughter starting when she was just three years old is a powerful indictment of the horrors of misogyny (as it also a revelation of Mo’Nique’s dramatic skills). She’s a monster, but there are reasons for her monstrosity. That she conveys such pain in a single speech—heavy on the meaningful close-ups, yes—suggests what might have been, in a film less determined to spell out every thematic point.