Appreciating it’s not the kind of film you’d ordinarily expect this site to cover, we’ve nonetheless been making sure that we see as many of the Oscar contenders as possible. Few are as haunting as Precious: Based On The Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire. It’s an, at-times, brutal tale of the title character, Precious, and the troubled life she leads. When we meet her, she’s still at school, still in her teens, and pregnant with her second child. Her first child is only allowed in the home she shares with her mother when the social worker comes round, so as not to affect the benefit cheques coming through the door. And her mother routinely abuses her, physically and verbally. You can find out about her father yourself.
But Precious isn’t a Sunday afternoon two-dimensional true story. In the hands of director Lee Daniels, the film explores Precious looking for light in her life, as she comes under the tutelage of Paula Patton’s Ms Rain. Ms Rain teaches those who, for whatever reason, have left their original schools and ended up in her classroom. And under her watchful eye, Precious gradually builds up her confidence in her abilities, and starts to progress.
Daniels is careful to show light and dark here, using one or two gimmicky techniques in the first half of the film (people moving in photographs, for instance), but predominantly focusing on telling Precious’ story in as honest and least-showy a way as possible. And that means that when the narrative takes a turn, it has real impact. Critics’ screenings can be the driest of places, but there were audible gasps at times as the on-screen drama played out. It’s an affecting, at times, extremely difficult film to watch, yet very much a three dimensional one (in the dramatic sense).
What lifts it even higher are the actors. There are two stand-outs here. Gabourey Sidibe as Precious is understated, mumbling, and utterly believable as the title character. She doesn’t ham things up, and has you rooting for her pretty much from the first reel.
The absolute standout, though, and you’ve probably heard this already, is Mo’Nique. This is the kind of performance that the vast majority of actresses get absolutely nowhere near in their careers, and Mo’Nique is rightly being nominated for every award going. And winning most of them. As Precious’ mother, she’s given difficult, uncomfortable material to work with, and her performance nails it perfectly. Her character, not least in the final act of the film, is the movie’s most haunting feature, and her amazingly controlled performance stays with you a long, long time after the credits roll.
Credit too, again, for Lee Daniels. I didn’t warm to him playing around with effects in the film, but it’s hard to see too many times where he really puts a foot wrong. He even gets away with the casting of Mariah Carey, removed of glam, who fully earns her place in the cast.
Perhaps, you could argue, Precious is the kind of film that gets made because awards ceremonies exist. But whatever side of that argument you fall, this remains a very strong, very powerful piece of cinema, and a difficult one to stomach.
And do keep an eye on whatever Mo’Nique, and Lee Daniels, choose to do next…