REVIEW: Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire [2009]

“A Day at the Shore”

About halfway through watching Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire I started to think about another dark and dismal drama about abuse. The comparison to Requiem for a Dream was very hard to remove from my consciousness, both with the subject matter and the stylish way in which they are shot. Aronofsky really evolved the visceral assault aesthetic for his tale of drug abuse and I have to believe that director Lee Daniels was thinking just that when approaching Geoffrey Fletcher’s adapted screenplay. From the quick cut details of squalor, to the fantastical dream-like sequences of escapism, to the horrors of life that many of us can’t even imagine occur under our noses, Precious owes a lot to that masterpiece of tone from about ten years back. While that juxtaposition does show its weaknesses in my eyes, it does not detract from how powerful this tale truly is. The style may at times trump the story, but it’s all overshadowed by the amazing acting start to finish. If the praise for the film is a tad elaborated, the performances are just as good or better than what I had heard.

This is a cautionary tale for all you out there; an education in how bad things can be. You think your life is horrid because you got a B on an exam in your suburban high school and Mom and Dad don’t think a new Wii has been earned? What about living your life knowing that, at 16 years of age, you have already been impregnated by your father twice, abused and reviled by your mother for ‘taking’ her love away, and so ravaged mentally that you can’t read a rudimentary book like a ‘Dick and Jane’ story? Puts things in perspective doesn’t it? Well, welcome to the life of Claireece “Precious” Jones; it’s a doozy. Introduced with a voiceover that continues to narrate throughout, the audience meets this young girl slouching and staying as silent as possible at the back of her math class. She talks about how she enjoys the subject, yet she does not apply herself to succeed, as she is too busy fantasizing about her older, white teacher. In fact, she envisions herself as a thin, white, attractive teen, wishing beyond belief that maybe her fantasy will come true, taking her away from the immense weight, the intense cruelty from others, and the filth she must go home to each day.

After being kicked out of school, Precious finds that her last chance at an education rests with an alternative school and its ability to get her ready for her GED. This is both an opportunity and a curse, giving her life meaning while also being the final straw to break and sever her family apart forever. It only takes a few minutes into her first class to realize that she is among friends, saying she never talks in class while doing just that. The act of only a few words finally makes her feel as though she is somewhere, like she belongs. This simple breakthrough is only the beginning of a journey to build her intelligence by writing and practicing and learning. However, her mother is already resentful, jealous even of her daughter, so the fact that she may actually be bettering herself is too much to bear. Therefore the abuse not only continues, but it gets worse. Mother Mary becomes even more vicious, throwing things, making her daughter eat, or stabbing her verbally through the heart. Going to school doesn’t only give her a sense of accomplishment; it also gives her self-worth and a drive to no longer sit back. One must be careful though, a television set always has the possibility of being thrown from a stairwell, aimed for a head below if you act out of line.

I think you get the idea about the subject matter—it’s bleak, it’s tough to watch, and it’s realistically depicted. There is of course the token social worker, the compassionate teacher, and the kindhearted male nurse to help her on her way to freedom, so it’s not all a nightmare. Watching will show the price that freedom comes with, however, and sometimes it is steep and unfair, but then Precious would expect nothing less. A little more adversity is old hat for her and she cannot let it seep in. She has two young children to take care of, needing to excise them from the toxic evil that is her mother, while also advancing her own improvement. Ultimately, the choice may come down to her children or herself; doing both may not be possible. Talk about a tough decision to make without a lot of time to do so. And Daniels is never afraid to put the turmoil and pain at the forefront, showing the sweat and tears change to flashbulbs and laughter as the young girl’s mind takes over. We all need to escape in our lives, whether to our imagination or to an oasis in our lives—Precious is no different.

And for a newcomer to acting, you can’t ask for more from Gabourney ‘Gabby’ Sidibe. This is a tragic figure if there ever was one and you feel her pain every step of the way. I loved her ‘happy place’ visions, seeing a complete transformation from her surly, hardened face to one of pure jubilation. A stoic warrior, Sidibe embodies this role with all she has, sorrow etched to even her posture and movements, yet still retaining that shred of hope, scratching and clawing, willing itself to find a way out. Listening to her narration both instills the importance of the writing that she is doing, but also how vast the chasm is between her upbringing and that of a character like Ms. Rain. For that role, Paula Patton shows the world again how great she is despite always being relegated to supporting roles. Her compassion and desire to help the less fortunate is incalculable, never sacrificing her job or duty as an educator while helping these girls get off the streets. Everyone is absolutely genuine and unforgettable here, especially Chyna Layne’s Jamaican Rhonda, Xosha Roquemore’s spoiled and delusional Joann, Lenny Kravitz’s enigmatic Nurse John, and yes, even Mariah Carey’s social worker Mrs. Weiss. Who knew stripping away the make-up and need for glamour could give her the ability to show true range.

The real vision, however, besides Sidibe of course, is that of Mo’Nique as her mother. I’ll admit that through the first half of the film I didn’t see too much special from the performance. She played the badass, angry, and frightened woman, lashing out on those around her for the pain she felt should be dealt her way. Abuse breeds more abuse and she is the epitome of that case. But then I started looking upon her Mary as more than just a comedian playing it straight. Once the idea of this woman being Mo’Nique leaves your mind, you really begin to see the power she wields. The soft-spoken words to lull her daughter in close before she strikes with a force that not even your worst enemy deserves; the profanity-laced diatribes to let out the suppressed anger within; and the utter sense of failure and hatred for herself hidden and locked away give this character a three-dimensionality like no other. The final scene, when we discover who she is on the inside, when all the walls she has erected come down to show the vulnerability underneath, is a revelation, and I think worthy of any awards that may come to her. She and Sidibe drive this heart-wrenching tale from being just another cautionary tale to being a worthy piece of cinema, reaching an audience’s emotions and draining them dry before the credits role.

Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] Precious (Gabourey Sidibe, left) and Mary (Mo’Nique, right) in PRECIOUS. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate
[2] Precious (Gabourey Sidibe, left) and Ms. Rain (Paula Patton, right) in PRECIOUS. Photo credit: Anne Marie Fox


2 Thoughts to “REVIEW: Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire [2009]”

  1. Great review, Jared. I just wanted to comment on the storyline. For those thinking that this story is far from home, think again. I photographed newborns for a while at Sister’s Hospital. There wouldn’t be a week that passed that we didn’t hear a story like this, except the girls were usually younger, about 13 having babies by their fathers, their mother’s boyfriends or an uncle. My grandmother also fosters groups of girls at a time. Almost each set has been sexually abused by a male in their life, one as young as 5. The worst part about these stories is that the mother usually blames the child, or children, and sometimes, gets back with the partner.

    I’m sure everyone has a story to relate to”Precious”, but it is our failure to educate our youth that should shock us more. Why we can’t invest more time and money into teaching rape prevention, sex prevention and teaching general respect to our children is beyond me. I give a lot of credit to those who live through it (Oh Tyler Perry’s story is just horrific, speaking of). I couldn’t imagine the courage it takes to move on, and then find your life. It’s amazing we live in a world where humans do these things to other humans.

    Great review Jared!

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