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Movie Review

Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire

Joy amid the pain: ‘Precious’ examines the struggles and strength of an astonishing teen

By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / November 20, 2009

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In “Precious,’’ Claireece Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) usually comes home from school and prepares dinner for her mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), in their Harlem apartment. Mary could probably make dinner herself. But it’s easier for her to throw the dinner out or at Claireece if she’s not the cook. Mary curses at Claireece, who is dark-skinned, overweight, and, at 16, having an impossible time making it of out of middle school. Claireece, who prefers to be called Precious, stands there and absorbs Mary’s tirades, as if it were her daughterly duty. She did the same when her father raped her, twice leaving her pregnant and Mary violent with jealousy. The relationship doesn’t change. But the younger woman realizes it needs to.

This movie catalogs a wealth of human ugliness. It’s even been made to look ugly, presumably to underscore the horror movie that is Precious’s life. (Mary castigates her daughter from a stairwell just like Piper Laurie did to Sissy Spacek in “Carrie.’’) But “Precious,’’ in its own way, is a work of astonishing joy. Avoiding the conventional tricks of lifting an audience up, the movie looks into this girl’s wide, brown face and her bleak little life and sees, despite everything, a reason to live.

Director Lee Daniels brings to the screen a vitality that cuts against the awfulness we hear about and see, without daring to dull a thing. Living, the director seems to say, means being alive to savor the good and to feel the bruise of the bad. So his camera usually gets right up close to the sex and the assaults, but it also transports us deep inside Precious’s psyche, where her shame commingles with her fantasies. A blond white girl stares back at her in the mirror. In her red-carpet daydreams, she sounds like Nicole Kidman, and in the photo shoots of her mind, she’s Naomi Campbell. In these daydreams, her companion is a cute, creamy-looking Nuyorican boy. And yet Precious’s fairy godmother arrives in the opening scene, and it’s Susan Taylor, the former editor of Essence, who made it her mission to remind black girls that they’re beautiful.

Absurdly, the film’s full title is “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.’’ The movie is set in 1987, and I don’t think there was a theater back then whose marquee could hold all that title. Sapphire’s 1996 book was a work of point-blank dread. Screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher has streamlined the graphic degradation without making the usual compromises. Like the book, the movie still leaves you feeling like Mike Tyson just knocked you out. And you can practically smell Newports and fried food wafting from under the theater seats.

Sapphire wrote brutally in Precious’s subgrammatical cadences - Zora Neale Hurston without the lyricism. The movie is similarly blunt. But, like the novel, it’s not unpoetic, either, as it enters the mind and feelings of a young black girl. That’s a feat so rare some moviegoers might want to bring a passport. Through narration, Precious still comments on her situation. In her sleepy, congested mumble, she explains, for instance, that she’s attracted to her math teacher (Bill Sage), who in her imagination gives a lascivious wink back. But nightmares of her father’s transgressions persist, courtesy of montages that juxtapose rape and buttery food sizzling in a pan.

This is high sensationalism, but it’s not as if Daniels is going for anything else. This girl’s life is a sensationalist’s dream. But part of what permits all the obscenity to move you is that the filmmaking doesn’t exploit or condescend. This is not Rob Reiner stepping out of his limo to toss a picture frame around a tragedy, or the pro-integration preaching of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.’’ Clearly, Daniels is drawn to salaciousness and melodrama. But he gives the movie an authentic rawness that cuts right past realism, into reality, and even luridly beyond that. Food is presented so unpleasantly, so often, that you’ll think twice about your next KFC variety bucket.

Europeans, notably Belgium’s Dardenne brothers, have told versions of this story, more soberly and observationally. Realism, though, isn’t quite right for the grotesquerie and comedy here. At one point, Daniels tries old Italian war drama, sticking Precious and her mother in a black-and-white scene from Vittorio De Sica’s “Two Women,’’ where Mary’s abuses continue. The movie wants to go a little bit nuts, which is what happens whenever the comedian-actress Mo’Nique is on screen. Her stage act specialized in raunchy self-empowerment. Her movie work, specifically her tour de force in 2006’s “Phat Girlz,’’ has been about self-destructiveness. Her “Precious’’ performance feels as much about spiritual exorcism as acting. It all culminates in a grand emotional breakdown that not even roadside assistance could do anything about.

While the sturm und drang of life with Mary will grab headlines, the heart of the movie is about personal breakthrough. The best scenes happen between Precious and her classmates in an alternative-education program. She’s not the only one with a miserable story (although hers pretty much takes the cake) and the bond these girls share is powerful. The women Daniels cast are exuberant, especially Xosha Roquemore who plays a showboat named JoAnn. They have great accents and fierce attitudes, and you sense that they believe they’re all in this together. Daniels’s hot-flash style cools into what could pass for social documentary.

In those and other scenes, the movie’s central struggle is between Precious’s self-doubt and the adults who refuse to give up on her. Oddly, they are all played by light-skinned actors: Paula Patton as the program’s tireless teacher, Ms. Rain; Lenny Kravitz, as a bohemian nurse; and a very good, very human-looking Mariah Carey, who bites down hard on her role as a social worker. It’s the old problem of complexion, but Daniels seems loosely aware of it. When Mary arrives to make her unfathomable apology to Precious, her face is coated with white powder. Who is she trying to fool?

From the center of all this tempestuousness, Gabourey Sidibe wrests control of the movie. Sidibe, who is 26 and hadn’t acted before, landed the part after an open casting call. And the surprise of her performance is how alive it is given the deadening nature of what her character endures. A vivid personality emerges, and what seemed like strategic restraint on Sidibe’s part turns out to be indomitable strength.

In another movie - one we don’t need to see again - Precious would be playing for that life-saving football scholarship. A talent scout would hear her sing. Or Richard Gere would come along and hire her to be his girlfriend. The exhilarating last images in “Precious’’ are of a woman far from the helping hands of Hollywood. She’s determined to save herself.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

PRECIOUS: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire

Directed by: Lee Daniels

Written by: Geoffrey Fletcher, adapted from, well, see above

Starring: Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Paula Patton , Lenny Kravitz, and Mariah Carey

At: Boston Common, Fenway, Kendall Square, Coolidge

Corner, suburbs

Running time: 110 minutes

Rated: R (child abuse, including sexual assault

and pervasive language)

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