The Movie Review: 'Precious'

Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire may be the worst-feeling feel-good story ever committed to celluloid. The protagonist, Claireece Precious Jones (Gabourey 'Gabby' Sidibe), is 16, morbidly obese, and illiterate. Her indolent mother, Mary (Mo'Nique), treats her like a slave, beating and abusing her incessantly. Her father, on the rare occasions when he shows up, seizes the opportunity to rape her. These violent attentions resulted in her bearing him a child when she was twelve; as the film begins, she is pregnant with another. The first baby has Down syndrome and is named "Mongo" ("short for 'mongoloid,'" Precious explains); to her good fortune, the little girl lives with Precious's grandmother, except when Mary briefly imports her to the apartment for social-worker visits so that she can continue receiving the welfare check the child entails.

Uplifted yet? And we haven't even gotten to the part where Precious learns that, thanks to her father's assaults, she's also HIV-positive. ...

That material so grim has been rendered watchable, let alone a forceful cinematic experience, is a testament to director Lee Daniels and, especially, his cast. Newcomer Sidibe gives a subtle, textured performance in the lead role, at once shy and hurt and surly. She juts her chin and squints her eyes as if trying to fold her face inward and retreat from the world, safe in her cocoon of accumulated flesh. There, she would be free to live the fantasy lives Daniels provides her, as a movie star on a red carpet or a dancer on BET, imaginary worlds to which she flees when her drunken father again pins her to the bed.

His monstrosity, at least, is an infrequent visitation; her mother's violent, insatiable narcissism, by contrast, is the sole constant in her life. Comedienne Mo'Nique gnaws her way into the role with horrifying conviction, creating an indelible portrait of envy, fear, and malice. Her Mary is a woman incapable of acknowledging any needs outside of her own, one who refers to her Down syndrome granddaughter as a "goddamn animal" and is jealous that her boyfriend's rapes have impregnated Precious more often than her. She is a black hole of human selfishness.

The movie tells the story of Precious's gradual escape from that ravenous gravitational well, out of the apartment of cigarette smoke and pig's feet and bed springs and casual cruelty and into a world of unimagined possibilities. She's aided on the journey by a literacy teacher, Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), into whose hands she falls after being expelled from school, a social worker (Mariah Carey, in a performance miraculously devoid of divahood) who excavates her history of abuse, and a motley, yet entirely persuasive crew of girls in her literacy class. The arc of the story may be familiar, but it is told with such ruthlessness that it feels revelatory. This is a film that makes the fiercest domestic drama of last year, Revolutionary Road, look, well, domesticated.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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