I get the sense that "Precious" is the type of film, and type of story, written and made to be almost like a documentary, to provide insight into what the key people have experienced in their lives. All of the creative people behind the pen and the camera clearly identify with the characters and the situations. I suspect they have had personal experience with similar situations; don't know this for a fact, but the film is so moving, so well-made, so interesting, I feel this has to be the situation here.
I can't comment on how accurate the depiction of life for Precious, played by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe and her mother, played by Mo'Nique is, I have no reference point. But I can tell you the performances seem real.
I was talking with someone about this film and told her she had to see it. Their response? "I think I can probably guess everything that happens in the film". I thought about this for a moment and replied that she was probably right. But the real reason to see this film is because everybody involved seems to be so passionate about the story and the characters, leading them to take both to depths you wouldn't expect.
It is 1985 and Precious is an overweight, illiterate sixteen year old pregnant with her second child. She lives with her mom (Mo'Nique) in a shabby apartment in Harlem. Mom basically spends her days at home, watching television, eating and waiting for the welfare checks to arrive. When the weight of her life becomes too much, she takes her frustrations out on her daughter. Precious is good in one subject, math, and fantasizes about her math teacher, among many other things. One of these fantasies is interrupted by a call from the principal's office who confronts Precious and asks if she is pregnant again. Later, the principal shows up at their door step and her mom wants Precious to make her go away, she doesn't want anything or anyone to jeopardize her welfare checks. The principal recommends Precious attend a special school to help her get up to speed with her writing and work towards earning her GED. As soon as she arrives, Precious meets Ms. Rain (Paula Patton) who knows how to handle the group of rowdy girls in her class. Soon, everyone gets to know a bit about each other and Precious finds a refuge away from the horrors of her home. Along the way, she starts to tell the truth to a welfare worker (Mariah Carey). And a male nurse (Lenny Kravitz) also befriends her at the hospital when she gives birth to her second child. But she still has one wicked mother to contend with and won't ever be free until she is able to live her life without the influence of her mother.
Directed by Lee Daniels ("Shadowboxer") and based on the book "Push" by Sapphire, the project was in development for a long time because Sapphire wanted the right people to make the film. Finally, Daniels, a relative unknown with one film to his credit, convinced her he had the right vision for the film and found newcomer Gabourey Sidibe to play the role of Precious. Everything seems to have fallen into place because "Precious" is the type of film that sears itself into your conscience. You won't forget this film for many, many years.
It strikes me as odd that people always judge a newcomer's performance by how true and real it is, how lifelike. Wouldn't you expect a newcomer to be able to portray a more real person? Yes and no. Often, an inexperienced or novice actor feels they have to 'act' and try to make the role seem showy or worthy. Or the actor is often too conscious of the camera and begins to play to it, directing all of their emotion and attention to the camera rather than the other actors. So when you find a newcomer who appears completely natural, completely at ease, it is something to announce, to herald, because the actor has done something that helps us get lost in the story. Gabby Sidibe does this as "Precious". It isn't a role filled with a lot of dialogue, but this seems right for this character. You get the sense she is quiet because she is afraid to speak to certain people and afraid to reveal her lack of knowledge. Also, her mother frequently yells at her and gets mad at her if she says the wrong thing. And she can't tell the truth to certain people, for fear of jeopardizing some sort of assistance, so she remains quiet to prevent the truth slipping out.
As we learn how truly bad this young ladies life is, we watch as she fantasizes about the things she wants in life. These moments are brief visual respites from the bleakness of her life, but because they happen whenever something bad is happening to Precious, they also take on a more ominous feeling. As some terrible events happen (some street kids throw something at Precious and knock her to the ground) she escapes by retreating to her fantasy life, imagining herself on the red carpet at an awards show with her light skinned boyfriend who has 'good hair'. These daydreams give us as much hope as they seem to give Precious.
It is nice to see that there is some hope in Precious. Even though she lives in an extremely abusive environment, she does fairly well at school and finds some refuge there. I think this is why she is so upset when called into the principal's office. If she gets kicked out of school, what does she have then? Where can she go to escape? So the alternative school is not really a choice for her and when she finds she likes it, it becomes more of a new home for her.
Gabby Sidoube hides a lot of her performance, letting it leak out through her eyes, her facial expressions, her body language. And this fits perfectly for a teenaged girl. We can see when the rage becomes too much and she acts out against her mother, when her exasperation at the living conditions becomes too much for her to bare and when the world weighs too heavily on her, there are moments, brief and fleeting, that give us all of the information we need. Sidoube doesn't say a lot in her portrayal of Precious, but she conveys a lot.
Mo'Nique does a mesmerizing job of bringing Precious' mother, Mary to life. We have all seen abusive parents portrayed on the screen before, but Mo'Nique digs deep and makes this character truly frightening. Mary doesn't want to work and prefers to sit in their dingy apartment, surrounded by too many cats, eating and waiting for her daughter to return from school. She would clearly rather not have Precious go to school and would keep her home to provide constant companionship and attention. But she needs Precious to go to school to continue to get Welfare. She also pretends to love Precious' first child, who was born with birth defects, in order to get Welfare. But as soon as the Welfare worker is gone, she hands the child to her mother who is caring for the little girl.
Bored and finding herself with way too much time on her hands, she watches television, naps, tries to fill the time. When Precious comes home, she take her frustrations out on her daughter.
Mo'Nique doesn't seem to have any inhibition in her portrayal of one of the most unpleasant people you are likely to ever experience. Slow dancing with her self, she undulates next to their little television, some sitcom playing mindlessly in the background. Most actresses would try to inject some redeeming qualities into this character, but Mo'Nique doesn’t. She seems to realize that would be wrong for Mary, Mary has been beaten down by life and will now do her best to beat down everyone else in her life. If she can't have something, why should anyone else? She is truly abusive and should be locked up. The performance is very good and deserves some recognition when Awards season begins.
As the story progresses, there are little glimmers of hope in Precious' life. Ms. Rain (Patton) seems to realize what is going on in her newest student's life and tries to help her, befriending her at one point. When Precious begins telling the truth to the Social Worker (Carey), we can see a weight lifted from her shoulders. And the social worker begins to help Precious. People show her some kindness when they begin to get the whole picture. You get a sense that even with all of her problems, all of the challenges in her life, Precious might just have a chance.
It's a slim chance, but a chance nonetheless.
"Precious" is the type of independent film we haven't seen in a while, raw, vibrant, meaningful and memorable.