Precious features plenty of off-putting images and attitudes, beginning with the movie’s straight-out-of-Rush-Limbaugh’s-nightmares vision of lazy welfare queens, and ending with the way the film seems to wallow in inner-city misery. It isn’t enough that director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher (working from a controversial bestseller by Sapphire) present teenager Gabourey Sidibe as morbidly obese and functionally illiterate; she’s also a victim of sexual and physical abuse, with a mentally retarded daughter, another child on the way, and a serious health crisis looming. Not even Douglas Sirk or Lars von Trier would heap so much abuse on a heroine.
And yet, on its own melodramatic, tear-jerking terms, Precious works. Daniels and Fletcher don’t spare the sorrow, but neither do they neglect moments of joy, hope, or belonging. Daniels injects some levity when Sidibe begins attending an alternative school and bonds with her fellow troubled teens, and he injects style into impressionistic sequences that illustrate Sidibe’s interior life, and how it differs from the distant (yet omnipresent) TV-approved vision of material success. Precious punishes the audience with scene after scene of squalor and hopelessness, but like last year’s poverty-can-be-entertaining hit Slumdog Millionaire, it rewards them for hanging on ’til the end. The story follows a predictable underdog-makes-good rhythm, but hits its beats with commendable gusto.
Much of the credit goes to the performances. Sidibe finesses sympathy and repugnance remarkably well, and grows as an actress as her character grows as a person. Paula Patton is calm and strong as Sidibe’s new teacher, who treats her students like people, not cattle. And as Sidibe’s monstrous mother, Mo’Nique delivers profane, terrifying tirades, culminating in a monologue as painful and heartbreaking as any ever filmed. (It’s an Oscar-clip kind of speech, but an effective one.) If not for its stars, this movie would be fairly mundane, but those who believe in the power of great acting to transform a film will want to see what happens to Precious.