“Precious” is a “woman’s movie” — it speaks to women, rubs them rightly or wrongly, touches a few raw nerves. Male viewers may find it hard to stomach. The scene in the screening room after the lights came on reflected this. The distributors were grouped around the entrance doors, collecting the critics’ reactions. Only the women stopped to chat, press tissues to their eyes and say how much the movie meant to them. The men hotfooted it toward the elevator, their averted faces silently expressing “no comment.” Later, a female staff member explained, “Men know that it’s a good movie, but that doesn’t stop them from wanting to put it out of their minds, as quickly as possible.”
“Precious” is about a 16-year-old black girl from Harlem — and between her mother, teacher, classmates and social workers that surround her (for better or worse), the hormones run aplenty. Mariah Carey makes an unrecognizable appearance as a dark-haired welfare case worker with no makeup and frumpy clothes that, strangely enough, draw out an earthy, antiglamorous sexuality. Mo’Nique spends most of her screen time as the mother, dressed in a dirty slip and bathrobe, planted in front of a TV set while gnawing on fried pigs feet. Paula Patton plays an attractive teacher at an alternative school who’s devoted to her lesbian lover.
The film is not shy about the oppression of women and its disturbing consequences — a mother confesses to a social counselor that she let her husband sexually abuse their daughter for more than a decade because she was afraid of losing her own sexual relationship with him. “With my man gone,” she sobs, “Who’s gonna make me feel good?” As a whole, the package unabashedly shows these downtrodden women, warts and all, and could be too much for guys used to the typical cinematic made-up, well-toned versions of womanhood. For women, it’s a mirror thrust in our faces, no matter how remotely connected one’s own experiences are to those in the film.
Based on the book “Push” by Sapphire, “Precious” is set in the late 1980s when crime in Harlem was rampant. A lot of bad things were going on, and for protagonist Clareece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), a huge portion of the evil seems dumped on her by a merciless god. Every morning she awakes to a reality consisting of her drunken, abusive mother (played with ferocious efficiency by Mo’Nique, who rightly won an Oscar), her absentee father whose child she’s carrying for the second time (the first was when she was 12 years old), an utter lack of friends and her massive, uncontrollable weight.
She moves through the neighborhood and the halls of her high school like a hulking bulldozer with bangs, but for all the attention paid to her she may as well be invisible. Plenty of stuff goes on inside her head — though she can’t spell or identify the word “at,” she’s good with numbers and has a secret crush on her math teacher. In a voice-over (crushingly sad in its delusional satisfaction) she fantasizes about the teacher proposing marriage, and setting up a nice home with him in a white-bread suburb.
Director Lee Daniels (best known as the producer of “Monster’s Ball”) is not a veteran, but he has an assured, confident (if predictable) style that steps back to focus on the performances. This works to the story’s full advantage — the cast run the show and the camera zooms in on their expressions with inquisitive respect.
The closeups of Precious are handled particularly well — especially the rare moments when the corners of her lips turn up in a slight smile as she gets ready to say something funny. It is at those moments that she’s not a victim, and we see her basking in a niche of hard-won personal triumph before the demons — inner and otherwise — close in to do their damage.
As hard as her life is, “Precious” is not a tragedy, nor does the film spiral into weighty social commentary. Ultimately, Precious makes choices that live up to her name and we see that for her, life isn’t about conventional happiness but about making it as valuable as she can.