If you thought Celie in Alice Walker's The Color Purple had a tough time of it, wait till you get a load of Precious (Gabourey Sidibe). Her father has been raping her since first grade, giving her two babies, the first at age 12, and infecting her with HIV. And not only does her father molest her, her mother (Mo'Nique) does as well. Precious is 16, illiterate and overweight, one more lost cause in the benighted Harlem of 1987. Adapted from the novel Push by Sapphire, who might be a little too beholden to Walker's epic novel of African-American female suffering and redemption, the film comes close to collapsing into exploitation or self-parody.
Interview: Gabourey Sidibe. By Brett Michel.
Precious | Directed by Lee Daniels | Written by Geoffrey Fletcher, based on the novel Push, by Sapphire | with Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’nique, Paula Patton, Lennie Kravitz, Mariah Carey, and Nealla Gordon | Lionsgate | 109 minutes
Thank Sidibe's extraordinary performance that it doesn't. Together with director Lee Daniels, she creates a character and a point of view that makes the most outlandish excesses brutally plausible. Daniels dealt with similarly extreme material in his first feature, the punch-drunk Shadowboxer (2006). Since then, he's learned to balance the purple passages with stylistic restraint, allowing the pathos and horror to register without histrionics. At least, most of the time — there's a moment when mom tosses a TV set down a stairwell that reminded me of the chainsaw scene in American Psycho.
Even that act of violence doesn't shake Sidibe out of her stoic aplomb. She's more massive and monumental than she is obese, and as impenetrable as an armored vehicle. But her voiceover, drawn from the broken poetry of the book's first-person narration, evokes an inner world of rage and tenderness, of violation, self-loathing, and nascent wisdom. Daniels does indulge her with the odd traumatic flashback or gaudy fantasy, and the effect is poignant and nightmarish. Inevitably, however, as always happens in stories of this kind, an inspiring teacher will draw Precious out of her private hell and into fulfilling her potential.
That teacher has the unfortunate name of Blue Rain, and though played earnestly by Paula Patton, she doesn't progress much beyond well-intended stereotype, and she can't compete with Mo'Nique's scene-stealing performance as the most depraved and wicked movie mother since Mommie Dearest. Mo'Nique resembles Ursula the Sea Witch in spandex, and the depth and totality of her malice is almost hypnotic.
Between her and the demonic though rarely present dad, Precious gives us an urban African-American family that's a far cry from the Huxtables. No white filmmaker would get away with such an un-PC portrayal. This movie puts much of the blame for black misery on black people themselves, a point of view that at times is borderline reactionary and certainly reductive.
But in contrast to the unbridled evil of Precious's parents, there are the kind souls she encounters as she rises from feral victimization to self-actualization. Not just bland Blue but the other students in her special class, tough cookies with hard-luck tales of their own. Lenny Kravitz puts in a touching cameo as an easy-going, kind-hearted male nurse. The film's most revelatory role, however, might be the crusty social worker played by an unlikely but outstanding Mariah Carey. She has the privilege of confronting mom with her crimes, but those looking for vengeance and vindication are apt to be disappointed, since the film's arch victimizer proves to be no less a victim herself.