The Madeafication of African-American storytelling from Tyler Perry and his imitators has been a depressing downward spiral, reducing important social topics to countrified nonsense, often chased with a heavy wallop of misguided religious justification. Though “presented” by Tyler Perry (and Oprah Winfrey), “Precious” restores some much needed horror to abuse of all kinds, lending weight to self-esteem issues instead of playing them off as melodramatic screenwriting requirements. This is a lacerating tale of desperation and evolution, and while director Lee Daniels should do himself a favor and muzzle most of his visual instincts, he permits the material to lead the charge, creating a harrowing environment that makes for a hypnotic sit.
The year is 1987, and Precious (newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) is a morbidly obese, illiterate 16-year-old girl suffering abuse at the hands of her violent mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), and expecting her second child, impregnated by her own father. Kicked out of school, Precious is sent to the “Each One Teach One” GED education center, where she meets sympathetic teacher Ms. Rain (Paula Patton). Trying to survive her daily punishments and humiliations, Precious starts to put her life in order through her educational efforts, engaging slowly but surely with counselor Ms. Weiss (Mariah Carey), who attempts to adjust the young lady’s sense of self-worth. Emboldened by her accomplishments and newfound friends, Precious realizes she isn’t free from her mother’s wrath, with even more severe turns of fate waiting around the corner to smash her confidence to pieces.
There’s a special low-to-the-ground quality to “Precious” that pulled me into the story almost completely. Narrated by the title character in a thick-tongued, stream-of-consciousness ramble, mumbling her every thought as though the audience should not be allowed to hear her hopes and dreams, “Precious” feels properly intimate. It’s almost voyeuristic in a way. The screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher seeks to provide a balance between the character’s horrific reality and the shelter of her mind, where dreams of red-carpet stardom and the romantic attention of cute boys whisks Precious away from the cruelty that’s toughened her exterior and sent her heart into a coma. The film preserves its literary foundation by capturing Precious’s conflicted core, performed with stupendous clotted discomfort by Sidibe, whose fearlessness in appearance and emotional availability gives Daniels a miraculous canvas to work with.
With such throbbing swells of misery portioned throughout the film, it’s a miracle Daniels never accepts a less aggressive route of misery for his heroine. The option is there, but Daniels (last seen with the eye-rollingly bizarre 2006 thriller, “Shadowboxer”) ducks temptation, preferring to tackle Precious’s grueling world with authentic malice and irritation, showing equal parts love and frustration for the character. Daniels takes an unfortunate off-ramp with his visual style, which arrives as clichéd as can be, using zooms and fractured editing to artificially breathe for the story. The effort is distracting and entirely worthless when the cast is harmonizing superbly. Even Mo’Nique, not normally known for her graceful screen presence, contributes volatile work as the demonic mother, cursed with feelings of irrational jealousy that have made her daughter the enemy. She’s pure malice, and a nice contrast to the work of Paula Patton, who steals the film as the exhausted, supportive beacon of hope for Precious, refusing to accept her excuses, nudging the terrified girl into literacy and communication.
“Precious” is more concerned with the first steps of empowerment, not an overall cure, leaving more of a lasting impression than outright closure allows. The story of Precious hits several staggering low points, but the humanity is never far from view, and while uncomfortable to process at times, the film retains an impressive dramatic grip through unimaginable horror. Tyler Perry could learn a thing or two from this approach.