Well, I finally got around to seeing this one...like almost a year after it hit theaters and more than half a year after it won two Oscars at the 2009 ceremony. I knew that I would like this film but I didn't expect that feeling to give way to love. I know that I'm arriving kinda late to this party but I feel that I need to offer my praise to this exceptional film even though I probably won't say much that is different from what others have previously said about the film, but such is the case with truly excellent work. It has the power to affect and reach out to a variety of different people from all walks of life and when anything achieves that, perhaps it deserves that kind of universal acclaim. It's no wonder that this attracted the attention of Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, both of whom were instrumental in getting this film funded and released (and, in Perry's case, this is arguably the best film he's ever been involved with in any capacity). 2009 turned out to be one of the stronger movie years in recent history and Precious has earned it spot amongst the creme de la creme of that particular class. On paper, the storyline for the film (which was saddled with the overlong and wholly unnecessary subtitle, "Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire) is hardly the stuff of dreams - this certainly isn't the first time that we've be exposed to a story of underprivileged teenagers from the ghetto who try to break free of their humble origins in order to pursue better lives for themselves - but this is far from some made-for-TV, Hallmark Channel, "inspirational movie" affair. Precious doesn't earn it's emotional impact by blatantly toying with our emotions; rather, it just simply presents the situation as it is, without pulling punches or soft peddling the rather tough circumstances that the title character must face in her life. This quality, coupled with the powerhouse performances by the two leads, makes this a film that is as uncompromising and hard-hitting as it is ultimately hopeful and touching.
Incidentally, Precious shares superficial similarities with another 2009 release, The Blind Side, which touched up on some of the same issues that are presented here. Both involved young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who have to face and overcome adversity in order to achieve their dreams in life. Despite these tremendous odds, the protagonist in each film was lucky enough to have somebody in his or her corner (or a group of somebodies, in Precious' case) to offer encouragement and support. As good as The Blind Side is (even if I did find it to be a tad bit overrated), Precious packs a stronger punch largely because of its willingness to openly confront many of the issues that The Blind Side broaches, but only skims on the surface, in its quest to be a crowd-pleaser (although it should be noted that Precious was based on a work of fiction whereas The Blind Side was based on true - in fact, somewhat current - events); Throughout the course of the film, the title character (who incidentally shares her name with my mother) must endure a variety of soul-crushing and traumatic ordeals from the sexual abuse she receives at the hands of her father (she already has one child by him and, when the movie begins, she is pregnant again) to constant, daily barrage of physical and verbal abuse that her overbearing, unemployed, chain-smoking mother doles out. Additionally, she has to put up with taunts and ridicule from her classmates and neighborhood kids because of her weight. The film does what it must to pull the viewer into this tumult and that makes for an often difficult viewing experience. It's like we're not just merely viewing things from a detached perspective; we're there right alongside Precious experiencing the living hell with her.
However, as brutal and punishing as the film can be at times, it's far from being an unrelenting downer. Several fantasy sequences are included in the film not only to lighten up the mood, but also to present us with a critical component of Precious' personality. Like many young people who have to face daunting life situations, Precious has an elaborately constructed dream world where she sees herself as she'd like to be, getting the sorts of attention and affection that she desperately craves in her real life. Every time something bad happens to her, she retreats into this dream world as a coping mechanism - that is until she finally meets people in the real world who genuinely and truly care for her. The inclusion of these sequences does seem a bit jarring at first but, in retrospect, they add more to the film than they detract from it. And let's face it: who amongst of us hasn't dreamed of better, if not completely grandiose and outlandish, circumstances for ourselves? This is the kind of universal truth that the movie taps into so well. Most of the humor in the film is generated by these scenes but there are instances of it elsewhere as well, such as the scene when Precious robs a bucket a fried chicken from a diner on her way to school only to get sick from gorging herself on it. Some of the banter amongst the students in her class and as well as the name that Precious gives to her first-born (who has Down's Syndrome) might provide some chuckles as well, although consternation is equally as likely to be a reaction (especially in the case of the latter). At any rate, moments of levity like these are necessary to offer the occasional respite from the grimness of most of the movie but the humor never feels forced nor is it so overdone that it threatens to compromise the viability of proceedings.
Of course it would be remiss of me to write this review without mentioning the acting. Both Gabourey Sidibe and Monique received Oscar nominations for their on-the-mark performances (Monique of course went on to take home her statue for Best Supporting Actress) and I can't fault the Academy one bit for these choices. As the title character, Sidibe completely buries herself underneath Precious' skin and stays there (incidentally, as I'm writing this review, the October 2010 edition of Elle Magazine, featuring Sidibe on the front cover, has just hit bookshelves). She bring every facet of this character to life from the sadness and anger at the hand life that has dealt her to the resilience she shows in her attempts to play the best game she can in spite of all of it. A huge part of the reason why we identify so deeply with Precious and feel like we're vicariously living out her trials and tribulations alongside her is because Sidibe completely sells the character, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that this was only her first professional acting gig. As good as Sidibe is however, Monique proves to be every bit her equal in her performance as Precious' abusive mother Mary. One could almost argue, in fact, that Monique's role posed a greater challenge since she's somewhat well known whereas Sidibe is just starting out - Monique is known largely for her comedic roles although she's done dramatic stuff too (she had a major role in 2005's Shadowboxer, which was directed by this film's director, Lee Daniels) - but against those odds, Monique proves just as capable as her co-star of losing herself in her character. There is no denying that Mary is a nasty, nasty piece of work but Monique allows us to see some of her more human qualities as well, particularly during one scene late in the film where she finally lets down her guard in front of a social worker. We certainly don't ever come close to sympathizing with her, but we do gain a measure of understanding as to how she came to be the way that she is and Monique's work is an integral part of getting this point across.
The supporting cast may not have as much visibility but their roles are no less crucial to the success of the film (it could be argued, in fact, that some of these secondary characters deserve more screen time but that might have elongated the film unnecessarily and possibly diluted some of its considerable power). As the teacher who takes Precious under her wing and offers her love and support, Paula Patton radiates kindness mixed with just the right amount of toughness. Equally notable are the inclusions of musicians Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz as the aforementioned social worker who pities Precious and the male nurse who takes care of her, respectively. Both are low-key enough to where they don't call undo attention to themselves. Carey, in particular, tones down the glamour and allows us to forget about her ill-fated first attempt at acting in 2001's Glitter. All the performers portraying the students in Precious' class are also solid and believable as well. In the end however, it all comes back to the two leads and no one steals the spotlight from Sidibe and Monique. Whenever either of them is onscreen (whether together or apart from one another), our attention is on them.
Ultimately, Precious works, not because it trail-blazes into unexplored cinematic territory, but for the simple fact that it tells the story it wants to tell without affectations and unnecessary razzle-dazzle and it doesn't try to pretty up subject matter that is ugly. I won't claim that this film doesn't have any manipulation at all but when it tugs the heartstrings, it does so subtly. Ultimately, this is a tale of one young woman's quest to beat the odds and embrace her sense of self-worth in spite of the forces working against her; however, unlike seemingly 95% of similarly-themed movies, this one doesn't gloss over the treacherous journey that it takes to reach that point, which allows the catharsis at the end to feel more immediate and real. Credit director Daniels and his screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher (whose adaptation earned the second of the film's two Oscar wins) for their clear-eyed, collaborative vision and for using the tools at their disposal to bring it to fruition. Daniels, in particular, is on-record as stating that part of his passion for this film stemmed in part from the abuse that he received at the hands of his father when he was younger because of his sexuality; his zeal is evident in the sense of verisimilitude that informs every single frame of the movie. Not having read the book from which this takes its basis (as of this writing) I can't vouch for how faithfully this film follows its inspiration but, allowed to stand on its own merits, Precious is truly everything that its title suggests.