Few film-going experiences match this one for intensity. And it’s not the intensity of a good horror film or thriller (although it’s more horrible and suspenseful than most of them). This is the intensity of of life at its most relentlessly depressing and hopeless. And yet, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, manages to find hope. Where there is life, that life can be improved.
True, it carries what may be the most ungainly movie title since The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum at Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. But like Marat/Sade, it comes with a ready-made abbreviated version. So if you don’t mind, I’ll just call it Precious.
The title character, played by newcomer Gabourey ‘Gabby’ Sidibe, is 16 years old, extremely obese, illiterate, and is pregnant with her second child. And those aren’t her biggest problems. She lives with her bitter, welfare-dependent mother, who abuses her verbally and with physical violence. Her father rapes her regularly, and fathered both children. Her first child has Down syndrome. She escapes into fantasies of glamour and romance. She knows she’s not meant to have any happiness or any sort of future; her mother, who’s jealous that her daughter “stole” her man, reminds of that daily.
The setting is Harlem, in the late 1980’s.
The hope comes when she’s suspended from school and sent to an alternative school, where a single teacher (Paula Patton) helps a very small group of misfits prepare for their GED. Here Precious finds a community, and in the teacher, an authority figure who wants to help her and seems to have the resources to do so.
Another authority figure reaches out to her—a caring social worker played by Mariah Carey. Now, I went to the theater knowing that Carey played this part, and I still didn’t recognize her. Entirely deglamorized, she looked like a normal, moderately attractive woman who didn’t worry much about her appearance when she went to work.
Starting with a character as wretched as they come, Precious takes that character to a point where happiness is possible. But it’s no fairy tale. Don’t expect any happily-ever-after here.