Though only 17 years old, Clareece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) suffers enough misfortunes for several Greek tragedies remounted in 1987 Harlem. Precious’ title character endures obesity, illiteracy, a baby with Down syndrome and a sociopathically hostile, selfish mother (Mo’Nique) — and those are just the preliminaries. When Precious gets warmed up, it becomes almost unbearably grim, but its passionate performances raise it above contemporary motivational melodrama clichés.
Though she can barely read, Precious exhibits a talent for math. When she becomes pregnant for the second time, a kindly teacher secures Precious a chance to enroll in an alternative school called Each One, Teach One. Under the tough but kindly tutelage of crusading Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), Precious bonds with her boisterous female classmates and begins to respect herself.
Unfortunately, Precious’ mother, Mary, the embodiment of the 1980s “welfare queen” stereotype, serves as a daunting obstacle to Precious’ betterment and self-esteem. Mary subjects Precious to every imaginable form of abuse, and even forces her daughter to eat extra meals so Precious will be fatter and less attractive than her. Mo’Nique smolders with predatory, almost Brando-esque charisma as the sadistic mother, and fearlessly embraces the ugliest imaginable character traits. Mo’Nique’s superb performance proves nearly as surprising as the fine acting from singer Mariah Carey, almost unrecognizable as a no-nonsense, unglamorous social worker.
Produced by Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, Precious sports the ungainly subtitle Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. At times, the movie has a self-congratulatory quality, as if the filmmakers are terribly proud of themselves for tackling such challenging material. Subtlety isn't in director Lee Daniels’ vocabulary. At one point, the film conveys Precious’ expanding horizons at a museum field trip by surrounding Sidibe with a historic montage that would make a great PBS promo. At low moments, Precious escapes into fantasies of glitzy 1980s-era celebrity, and even a black-and-white, subtitled Italian movie, in a bid to lighten the mood and capture the girl’s mind-set.
Sidibe carries her heavy frame with such sorrowful dignity that she makes Precious more than a brutal author’s narrative punching bag. Precious tends to follow a familiar peaks-and-valleys trajectory of the female-empowerment story, but the passionate, wrenching performances from Sidibe, Mo’Nique and the supporting players deserve to be treasured.