Movie Review: Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire

by Eric Melin on November 24, 2009

in Print Reviews

Claireece “Precious” Jones, the abused and illiterate 16-year-old in “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” is so beaten down by her circumstances that she hardly ever shows emotion.

Played by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, her face is frozen in a near-constant grimace that seems to anticipate that something awful is about to happen at any moment.

It’s Harlem in 1987, and obese Precious trudges painfully through her day, escaping only with an active fantasy life where she imagines she’s the star of a glamorous BET-style photo shoot.

precious mo'nique 2009 An Evocative Mood

With “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” director Lee Daniels has illuminated this character in the most brutal and shocking light possible. I’ve read some critics who have dismissed the film as nothing more than exploitative “poverty porn,” but that is a limited way of looking at it.

For a movie steeped in grimy realism, “Precious” unfolds in an unusually impressionistic fashion, with artful cinematic transitions and a loose brand of storytelling that emphasizes little moments as much as it does big revelations.

Pitch-perfect performances

Daniels is a former casting director, so maybe that explains why what appears on paper to be a really bad idea turns out instead to be perfect. There’s nothing funny about stand-up comedian Mo’Nique’s performance as Mary, Precious’ abusive welfare mother. The intensity Mo’Nique brings to the role makes me think that the actress herself is familiar with this kind of story. The heartbreaking moment where Mary’s conscience almost catches up with her delusional and selfish outlook is enough to solidify this as a powerhouse performance.

mariah carey precious 2009Less overt and almost unrecognizable are Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz as Precious’ social worker and nurse, respectively. Nothing we’ve seen from these musicians in the past could have clued us in on why this casting would work, but Carey’s sympathetic eyes and Kravitz’s gentle camaraderie offer Precious some much-needed sincerity.

A real place

Sapphire’s novel was written in a first-person stream-of-consciousness narrative, and Daniels gives us a voice-over from Sidibe that functions in a similar fashion. Rather than using the narration simply as a device to connect the dots between plot jumps, we hear inner thoughts that range from typical teenage flights of fancy to the thoughts of a girl who’s discovering her own potential. It gives a voice to a character who hasn’t really had one.

gabourey sidibe precious 2009Daniels also avoids the temptation to draw simple lines of cause and effect with fractured but chronological storytelling. By including scenes that carry either the most emotional impact or the most telling of subtle moments, he draws a full picture of Precious that’s as cathartic as it is devastating.

Cyclical journey

As unfamiliar as most of this territory is, I have no doubt that these situations exist. Audiences will find much of “Precious” shocking, but even in this world that seems defined by the cycle of abuse, Precious can glimpse some hope in her journey. And it’s a world inhabited by many others, which makes Daniels’ credit-roll dedication to “precious girls everywhere” all the more poignant.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers.com and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 J. November 24, 2009 at 6:55 pm

I was confused by the inclusion of the color orange so often, in the scarf and other clothes Precious wears, and the orange soda that everyone seems to be drinking. It was like the director was trying really hard to reference the color like “The Color Purple” except it being orange, given the clear parallels between those two stories.

That’s the only part, as well as the uncertain ending, that I didn’t think worked. Everything else was superb. Mo’Nique totally became a rambling, pathetic monster of a woman that I almost understood but never sympathized with. She deserves better than a talk show on BET.

Reply

2 J. November 24, 2009 at 6:55 pm

I was confused by the inclusion of the color orange so often, in the scarf and other clothes Precious wears, and the orange soda that everyone seems to be drinking. It was like the director was trying really hard to reference the color like “The Color Purple” except it being orange, given the clear parallels between those two stories.

That’s the only part, as well as the uncertain ending, that I didn’t think worked. Everything else was superb. Mo’Nique totally became a rambling, pathetic monster of a woman that I almost understood but never sympathized with. She deserves better than a talk show on BET.

Reply

3 Nick November 24, 2009 at 7:22 pm

Gabourey Sidibe did an interview on BBC’s “The Strand” this morning.

Stellar.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0053ftw

Reply

4 Nick November 24, 2009 at 7:22 pm

Gabourey Sidibe did an interview on BBC’s “The Strand” this morning.

Stellar.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0053ftw

Reply

5 Eric Melin November 24, 2009 at 7:27 pm

Hmmm…interesting about the color orange. It could be as simple as her favorite color; something she feels comfortable in. Maybe its a part of her escape mechanism. I seem to remember that in the fantasy sequences quite a bit…
You know, I actually liked the ending quite a bit:
SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!!
I thought it was very effective to have the movie end on an empowering note of her own self-worth, even if her future was uncertain. The fact that she finally had the ability to act out was enough of a moment without the movie going over the top and tacking on some false happy-ending resolution.

Reply

6 Eric Melin November 24, 2009 at 7:27 pm

Hmmm…interesting about the color orange. It could be as simple as her favorite color; something she feels comfortable in. Maybe its a part of her escape mechanism. I seem to remember that in the fantasy sequences quite a bit…
You know, I actually liked the ending quite a bit:
SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!!
I thought it was very effective to have the movie end on an empowering note of her own self-worth, even if her future was uncertain. The fact that she finally had the ability to act out was enough of a moment without the movie going over the top and tacking on some false happy-ending resolution.

Reply

7 J. November 24, 2009 at 7:41 pm

I agree, and the fact that the Precious character danced on the edge of being totally unrelatable in that pretty much every horrible fate short of violent death has been forced upon her by the end of the movie, made a happy ending impossible. I can’t think of how else it could have ended, but I don’t see it as *empowering* in that there’s no way she can be expected to combat the odds against her.

However, I will grant that you could consider it *liberating*. Which I suppose is the ultimate message of the film, if you accept that support networks and caring people can continue to be found in the most unlikely of places, that despite your fate you can be afforded the ability to make your own choices, and there will be those who can and will support you.

The tragedy is how hard such a message is to believe in. The comedy is that we still want to believe in it despite all odds. Which is probably the genius of this movie’s story and presentation.

Reply

8 J. November 24, 2009 at 7:41 pm

I agree, and the fact that the Precious character danced on the edge of being totally unrelatable in that pretty much every horrible fate short of violent death has been forced upon her by the end of the movie, made a happy ending impossible. I can’t think of how else it could have ended, but I don’t see it as *empowering* in that there’s no way she can be expected to combat the odds against her.

However, I will grant that you could consider it *liberating*. Which I suppose is the ultimate message of the film, if you accept that support networks and caring people can continue to be found in the most unlikely of places, that despite your fate you can be afforded the ability to make your own choices, and there will be those who can and will support you.

The tragedy is how hard such a message is to believe in. The comedy is that we still want to believe in it despite all odds. Which is probably the genius of this movie’s story and presentation.

Reply

9 Troy November 24, 2009 at 7:52 pm

I have heard nothing but great things about this movie. I will have to wait until dvd. I doubt it will come anywhere close. Our PG cinema would never get this even if there were thousands of prints. :(

Reply

10 Troy November 24, 2009 at 7:52 pm

I have heard nothing but great things about this movie. I will have to wait until dvd. I doubt it will come anywhere close. Our PG cinema would never get this even if there were thousands of prints. :(

Reply

11 Leilani November 30, 2009 at 1:20 am

I was sad to see that this movie never made it to my island of hawaii. but i had a chance to see it online and it was a great movie. it was real and right to the heart. just wanted to stop by and say thanks

Reply

12 Leilani November 30, 2009 at 1:20 am

I was sad to see that this movie never made it to my island of hawaii. but i had a chance to see it online and it was a great movie. it was real and right to the heart. just wanted to stop by and say thanks

Reply

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