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Poignant Precious is worth the effort

by Glen Baity

At the height of Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, the title character turns to her journal to help her through the latest in a series of hardships. After being raped by her father, giving birth to two of his children and enduring a lifetime of physical and emotional abuse from her mother, the teenager is at the breaking point. The last punch is a knockout, and in her despair she scribbles the only thought she can hold on to:Why me?

It’s a question as honest as it is unanswerable, and it unwittingly speaks to one of Precious’s few flaws. More on that in a minute. When we meet her in the Harlem of the 1980s, Clareece Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is 16 years old, illiterate, stuck in junior high, morbidly obese and pregnant for the second time. Everything — literally everything — about her life is awful. Her mother (played by Mo’Nique) treats her like an unwelcome stray. She has just been suspended from school. Her classmates pick on her, a fact other movies might treat as significant; here, it doesn’t even rank among the top 10 tragedies about this young girl’s situation.

Things begin to turn around when Precious enrolls in an alternative school to work toward her GED. Under the guidance of her teacher, Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), she improves her reading aptitude, makes a few friends and learns to speak out, a skill that had almost been beaten out of her.

Precious juggles multiple themes, most notably the vicious cycle of abuse and the depression that follows in its wake. It’s an eloquent examination of those topics; the film’s only real downfall is that it doesn’t know when to quit piling on its main character. Reality is good, but too much reality can suffocate a viewer. Are there people in the world with many of the same problems Precious has? Most definitely. Are there any that have all of them all at once? Probably, but the film simply doesn’t need to chronicle every last blow to prove its protagonist is a fighter — that’s evident from the start.

But on balance, that’s a minor complaint. Aside from some clunky dialogue and a few inevitable moments that cross over into melodrama, Precious does what it does quite well. Director Lee Daniels parcels out the misery, no small task considering how much of it there is to go around. This is an exceedingly dark film, but there’s still plenty of daylight thanks to wonderful turns from Patton, Xosha Roquemore, Lenny Kravitz and a host of others. Daniels uses his supporting cast to usher in some small, lighthearted moments, each of them armor against the film’s ever-mounting sadness.

He deserves credit, too, for culling such strong performances from so many novice actors. Mariah Carey gets a major makeunder to play a firm-but loving social worker, and Sibide, in her first film, is marvelous as Precious. Mo’Nique has logged plenty of screen time in her career, but this role is new territory. My only other gripe with the film is that her character is written, essentially, as a sociopath, but Mo’Nique manages to find whatever scraps of a soul screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher left out.

It’s the actors who really make this material sing. Thanks to them, Precious is more than a boilerplate story about an inspirational teacher, more than a sad tale of abuse, more than an indictment of flawed social programs, though it contains bits of all these things. And while it’s often difficult to watch, it’s never quite overwhelming. The cinema on any given weekend is lousy with hollow inspirational movies, and in that context Precious is especially unique and compelling, a fresh look at the indomitable human spirit that is well worth the emotional turmoil it will put you through.

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