"Thing Are Looking Up, Waiting for the Piano to Drop"
There was a book out decades ago with a title I'd always related to depression—"Been Down So Long It Seems Like Up to Me." Well, for Cecile "Precious" Jones (Gabourey 'Gabby' Sidibe), depression would be a vacation, a relief. She's 16, morbidly obese, good at math but lousy at reading, pregnant for the second time by her abusive Mom's boyfriend (her first child is named "Mongo," short for "mongoloid" and has "Down Syndrome"). She's been kicked out of school for the pregnancy, which infuriates her sociopath mother (Mo'Nique), who treats Precious as a slave, beats her constantly and collects the welfare checks that come for housing Precious and her child. Only "Mongo" lives with grandma. A good night is when she avoids being knocked unconscious by a swung frying pan. She retreats, throwing her mind into fantasies about a glamorous life-style of red carpets and hot boyfriends. Doing her hair in the morning, a blonde-haired white girl looks back from the mirror.
Precious is on a downward spiral, and without some intervention, she's heading for schizophrenia. But, she's accepted at an alternative school where a reading and writing program prepping for GED classes channels some of the fantasy, and provides options her home-life would never allow.
This is an Afterschool Special for the Horror Channel. The unrelenting gloom of Precious' life keeps bottoming out to new depths that any relief feels like a victory and it helps that the tough performances by Sidibe, Mo'nique, Paula Patton and Mariah Carey (yes, that Mariah Carey*) are restrained and put off any sentimentality as long as possible. There has been side-criticism that the two leads give one-note performances. This is simply untrue, as both characters' sound-stage is inside their own heads. Sibide's performance, in her first film, is flat at the beginning purposely, as her character's default position is to lay low and internalize, not expressing much to avoid trouble. Mo'nique's performance is unrelentingly nasty—"bitch" is her default position, but is too smart and calculating not to play "social" when it's required of her character to gain something.
Shot in a gritty semi-documentary style by Lee Daniels, the film makes it plain that routine oppression on all sides snuffs out the light of life, and that expression is a helpful antidote. "Write!" implores Patton's teacher Miss Rain, when Precious is caught in a whirlpool of emotion with seemingly no escape. "Write." It's a warming scene, especially to one who knows the value of writing.
There are some nettlesome things. The full title is "Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire," which is unwieldy and just a little pretentious and seems calculated to sell books as compensation for the name-change (wouldn't it have been easier to change the cover of the book with film-art as is standing publishing practice for movie tie-in's?). Then there's the "Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry Present" shingle attached to it in the publicity, which is merely window-dressing to attract an audience to a difficult movie to sell. It's industry courtesy, just as surely as Coppola or Scorsese or Tarentino lend their names to projects they've either shepherded or given financial support to. Such criticisms are suspect for other issues.
It also avoids any mention of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, where the echoes of Precious' previous life seem to be vanquished with education, advocacy and social activity. But as the source novel is written by a teacher, any deviation from the syllabus stating that education is the answer might have seemed counter-productive. It's enough that the final shot, simple and unobtrusive, is open-ended and doesn't pretend to be anything more than a starting point. It's an ending, merely more hopeful than the beginning. But it's a good start.
"Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire" is a Matinee. It would be prudent to bring Kleenex.
* Carey, de-glammed in a black wig with no make-up and a borough accent plays a harried social worker, who is just above civil. I'm not a fan of hers, and I tend to dismiss her, but it's a revelatory performance. In fact, I didn't recognize her until I looked up her name in the credits. She's as un-diva as you can get here.