An urban nightmare with a surfeit of soul, “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” is like a diamond — clear, bright, but oh so hard. To simply call it harrowing or unsparing doesn’t quite cut it; “Precious” is also courageous and uncompromising, a shaken cocktail of debasement and elation, despair and hope. Everyone involved deserves credit for creating a movie so dangerous, problematic and ultimately elevating. Marketing will be a problem because the shorthand description is so unpalatable. But this is, for all its scorched-earth emotion, a film to be loved.
Adapted by Damien Paul from the work by one-time Harlem teacher and poet Sapphire, the pic tells the story of Claireece “Precious” Jones (newcomer Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe), a character who might have sprung from the collective brain of Charles Dickens, Toni Morrison and whoever carved the heads on Easter Island. With a jutting jaw and barely visible eyes, Claireece’s face is a monument to the racial crimes of the past 400 years (that this miserable child of 16 can look in the mirror and fantasize seeing a blonde white girl is pungent shorthand for a raft of evils).
Mute and mountainous, a stolid outsider who can barely read, Claireece is pregnant — again — by her father and on the verge of being kicked out of school. She’s also cruelly oppressed by her mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), whose daily routine consists of watching daytime TV, smoking cigarettes and treating her daughter like a slave (any historical parallels are not an accident). The situation is so dire that you almost have to laugh — the way you might laugh, nervously, during the darkest moments of a horror movie.
“Precious” is a horror movie, of course, and Mary is a monster, whose one glimmer of humanity — which Mo’Nique, who is utterly brilliant, reveals in a tour de force soliloquy at the finale — only makes her more horrible.
Second-time helmer Daniels (“Shadowboxer”) demonstrates a remarkable, balletic ability to juggle emotional extremes. Claireece has her fantasies, and their visualizations — of the girl as satin-clad pop star, movie star or supermodel — work as relief valves. They’re never funny, but they do humanize a character who has been reduced, by those who are supposed to love her, to a piece of meat, and who presents herself to the world as a very different, far less attractive creature than the Claireece we hear in voiceover.
Daniels never allows the film, however gothic and nightmarish, to lose its footing in the real world, and that world includes a certain amount of hope: Despite her mother’s hostility, Claireece enrolls in an alternative school where a teacher named Blu Rain (Paula Patton) prepares young women for their GEDs. Patton is terrific, beautiful but carrying the weight of the world in her eyes. And Claireece’s classmates, with their street-smart banter, give the film some needed levity.
Among the many delightful surprises in the film is Mariah Carey, who is pitch-perfect as a welfare counselor and serves as this demi-tragedy’s Greek chorus. It’s possible that many viewers won’t recognize her until the final credits, but like so many things about “Precious,” the performance is disarming.
Production values are tops.
Pic bowed at Sundance under the title “Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire,” which was changed to avoid confusion with the recent sci-fier “Push.”