It doesn't get much more harrowing than Precious. Raped by her father who has left her pregnant with her second child at age 16 and horrifically abused by her mother, Clareece "Precious" Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) has developed a vast, complex interior life as a means of escape.
In voice-over narration, director Lee Daniels allows us to see an inner light burning bright inside this young, lonely girl living in 1987 Harlem, despite an outward exterior that screams "nobody home." Her immediate surroundings give her every reason to shut down: Precious' mother Mary (Mo'Nique) lurks inside their dark apartment, where the sole source of light is the sickening sulfurous glow cast by the TV set, like Cerberus guarding the gate to Hades. Mary throws frying pans and douses Precious with water. She seemingly lives to humiliate and defile her daughter for her grotesque perception that Precious has "stolen" her man away.
The world outside Precious' apartment doors is similarly perilous for an introverted, overweight girl. Outside, Precious is dogged by a pitiful little girl who seems to live in the hallways and courtyard, another victim of a hopeless home life. And she is crudely propositioned by boys on the street, who shove her when she doesn't respond. Precious is a reminder of how certain people can be rendered virtually invisible.
As Precious goes through the paces of her day, solemn, eyes downcast, almost invisible, her mind races. Her thoughts pounce on her blonde, all-American math teacher as a romantic prospect. She imagines fantasy scenarios of a handsome, perpetually smiling Latino boyfriend who clearly adores her. She is an actress on an awards show red carpet and a boa-draped singer. There isn't a teenager alive who hasn't entertained such fantasies of grandeur. But for Precious, the fantasies are like drinking for an unhappy person, a kind of self-medication for a hopeless aching.
By ricocheting around inside her brain like a pinball, we become allies in the secret interior war Precious is waging with the world around her. Though her mother and father have almost convinced Precious that she is worthless, that running commentary lets us know that she hasn't yet surrendered to the enemy.
As the film progresses, and Precious meets a string of caring teachers and social workers (including an extraordinary Mariah Carey, scrubbed of makeup and deeply sympathetic), she begins to vocalize. She brings that inward voice out into the open and begins crafting a real future instead of a fantasy escape hatch.
Precious Jones is based on the many young women the poet and author Sapphire encountered teaching literary classes in New York City. In a classroom filled with like-minded souls — other tough-on-the-outside and soft-in-the-middle girls who have also hit rock bottom — Precious finds fellow travelers and a guiding light. With Precious' entry into an alternative school, and the kind ministrations of a beautiful teacher, Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), Precious threatens to fall into a Stand and Deliver-style uplifting classroom drama that ends with graduation caps tossed in the air. Luckily, the film sticks with the idea that this is Precious' story.
Transgressive by definition, Precious has entered theaters already buoyed by the names of executive producers Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry. In some ways Daniels' style has echoes of Tyler Perry's, especially in the way he melds tragedy and comedy. The film would be nearly unbearable without the safety valves of laughter Daniels allows, whether in the foul-mouthed banter of Precious and the wayward girls who come together in her alternative school classes or the small victories Precious achieves in a patently miserable life, like stealing a bucket of chicken from the local diner. Sometimes, as in Perryville, the jokes can feel a little forced. But despite its excesses, Precious is heartfelt stuff.
Some have expressed fear that the portrait Precious paints of its black characters is too narrow, too inner-city-centric, and fixated on the worst elements of that world — the child rapists and welfare mothers, the abuse and neglect. Daniels' film has the lurid, at times pulpy style that suggests a young adult novel mixed with the hysterical, pop-music infused beat of blaxploitation. But that style seems appropriate to Precious' reality: she is surrounded by chaos and excess, and the world itself is colored a silvery gray by her glum perspective.
Daniels' film is the Brokeback Mountain of 2009 for the way it forces us to consider the human beings inside stereotypes. For its portrait of a complex young woman caught in horrific circumstances, Lee Daniels' story — embellished by some incredible performances — is truly exceptional.