Someone deserves an award for Precious. Not just Sidibe, whose astonishing, heart-wrenching performance as a confused, abused, illiterate, obese teenager stamps all over silly little words like pathos. Not just director Daniels and everyone else involved in this production. Really, it’s the “Precious girls everywhere” to whom this film is dedicated. Because while it’s harrowing, inspiring and shocking to watch this catalogue of fear and pain unfold on screen, every day there are people actually living it.
These are the people who the David Camerons of this world gloss over when they talk about ambition and making the most of opportunities and all that crap. The people that Conservatives and Republicans like to write off as somehow to blame for their own situations, rather than deserving of help or welfare cheques. Except the David Camerons of this world will never know what it is like to walk in the shoes of a girl like Clareece Precious Jones.
Set in Harlem in 1987, Precious makes Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank look like a Disney film. Precious is pregnant with her second child; both were conceived through being raped by her father. Her depressed, violent mother Mary (Mo’Nique) doesn’t protect her daughter from being abused. This is the kind of environment where the concept of protection doesn’t really exist. Instead, she resents her daughter because “she made him leave”. She’s bitterly jealous: “You think you better than me because he gave you more children than me?” When she’s not slumping in front of the TV, Mary’s hurling abuse and frying pans at Precious.
Sanctuary comes in the form of an alternative school, Each One Teach One, where Precious ends up after she’s kicked out of regular school for being pregnant. Teacher Blu Rain (Patton) is probably the first person to show any kind of real care and compassion towards Precious. But that doesn’t mean things are going to magically get better. Yeah, Precious is going to school! Everything will be lovely and peachy! Except she’s still living with her abusive mother, still carrying her second child by her father, still refusing to open up to her social worker, Miss Weiss (a nearly unrecognizable Carey).
The David Camerons of this world might ask: why doesn’t she just leave? Why doesn’t she tell the nice social worker all about it so they can whisk her away? Except Precious doesn’t feel safe or able to talk – it’s not that she’s been made to keep quiet, it’s just her situation is all she knows. “They talk like TV channels I don’t watch,” she says at one point. Precious knows how to live the life she’s living. Hope isn’t so much a terrifying prospect as plain inaccessible. And you find yourself hanging on, rooting for her, hoping that, somehow, this time it’s going to be okay and her mother isn’t still full of abuse and anger.
Throughout this film, it’s rare for anyone to touch Precious. There’s not much in the way of intimacy here, no sense of care or protection. This is why the moment when Nurse John (Kravitz), a member of hospital staff, plants one gentle kiss on Precious’ forehead is one of the most poignant scenes in the whole film. Is Precious inspiring? Yes. It’s also devastating in its bleakness. But one thing’s for sure: Sidibe nailed it, absolutely. And despite the fact that she did not end up with an Oscar for her troubles, she’s done justice to all of those “Precious girls” out there.
EXTRAS ★★★ Three featurettes – A Precious Ensemble, From Push to Precious, and Oprah and Tyler: A Project of Passion; A Conversation with Lee Daniels and Saphire; a deleted scene; Public Service Announcements from Gabourey Sidibe, Paula Patton and Lee Daniels; and Gabourey Sidibe's screen test.