5 December 2009 | EUyeshima
Powerhouse Performances Tower Over a Harrowing Yet Enthralling Tale of Redemption
To my surprise, this soul-baring 2009 drama is neither as painful nor depressing as the subject matter would imply. In fact, director Lee Daniels' treatment alternates so fluently between gritty realism, social uplift, and fanciful episodes of fantasy that the end result is as much enthralling as it is emotionally draining. First-time screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher does a solid job adapting the 1996 source novel by Sapphire, "Push", but the strength and honesty of the cast is what sears in the memory. Daniels could have been otherwise charged with stunt casting had he not drawn out such powerhouse work from the out-of-left-field likes of comedienne Mo'Nique and pop diva Mariah Carey. Granted Daniels in his second directorial effort is not the most subtle of filmmakers (his first film was the strangely exotic "Shadowboxer"), but he does bring a level of florid passion that the subject desperately needs to alleviate the unrelenting bleakness of the title character's existence.
Set in Harlem in 1987, the story centers on sixteen-year-old Claireece "Precious" Jones, a morbidly obese girl so void of self-worth that she refers to herself without irony as "ugly black grease to be washed from the street". Nearly illiterate, she finds herself pregnant for the second time by her father, and the school principal arranges to enroll Precious at an "alternative" institution. She recognizes this as an opportunity to better herself, but her mother Mary discourages it and forces Precious to apply for welfare. The unenviable mother-daughter relationship is the crux of the film, and it is here the film gives an unblinking account of monstrous physical and psychological abuse that explains the sharp contrast between Precious' inner and outer lives. On the outside, she is a forlorn yet formidable presence with a face so full that she can't express emotion without a great deal of effort. On the inside, she is loved and admired unconditionally. The two slowly come together at Precious' new school where she finds acceptance and redemption through a dedicated teacher (improbably named Blu Rain), who must get through to a classroom full of girls all disadvantaged in their own ways.
The birth of Precious' son, along with the bonding she feels at school, signals a harrowing showdown between mother and daughter and ultimately a confrontation between Mary and Mrs. Weiss, the no-nonsense social worker who seeks the truth behind Precious' home life. In the title role, Gabourey Sidibe is ideally cast given the film's semi-documentary approach. An untrained actress, she is able to elicit empathy by giving herself completely to the inchoate character, and when Precious breaks down from the weight of yet another seemingly insurmountable development, Sidibe gives the scene a halting honesty. Paula Patton ("Swing Vote") gets to play the Sidney Poitier role of the elegantly transformative teacher as Ms. Rain, but she gives the too-good-to-be-true character a palpable sense of passion. As Mrs. Weiss, a role originally slated for Helen Mirren (who co-starred in Daniels' "Shadowboxer"), Mariah Carey, bereft of her glistening make-up and diva mannerisms, brings an audacious toughness to her smallish but pivotal role.
However, it is Mo'Nique ("Phat Girlz") that gives the film's most shattering performance. I don't know what emotional reservoir she is tapping into, but she nails Mary with a fury so startling and realistic that it's impossible to trivialize the source of her villainy. She never compromises the hardness in her character, and her self-justifying monologue is an impressive piece of work. There is also solid work from a couple of other unusually cast performers, comedienne Sherri Shepherd (of the morning TV talkfest "The View") as a tough school administrator aptly named Cornrows and Lenny Kravitz as a sympathetic male nurse, and a scene-stealing turn from Xosha Roquemore as the ebullient Joann ("My favorite color is florescent beige"). Not all of Daniels' left-turn devices work, for instance, using Sophia Loren's "Two Women" as the basis of one of Precious' fantasies seems contrived given only a die-hard cineaste would understand the connection. Regardless, it's no wonder that Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry put their stamp of approval on the film as executive producers since Precious ultimately finds a personal triumph despite the hard life has dealt her.