Precious is shaping up as the year's most unlikely hit movie. The contours of this low-budget film directed by Monster's Ball producer Lee Daniels are familiar: A teenage girl stricken by poverty and a troubled home life changes her life's trajectory after a fortunate meeting with a saintly teacher who gets her to be serious about education and expands her vision of what life can be.
There is some measure of expected comfort and uplift here, but what you have to wade through to get there is a lot rougher than Slumdog Millionaire's bucket of feces.
It's Harlem, 1987. We first meet protagonist Claireece Precious Jones daydreaming in math class, a voiceover fantasy of being "normal" that might include pairing up with her kind if overwhelmed white teacher. Precious is an overweight, illiterate, 16-year-old African-American girl still in junior high school when she's called into her principal's office and asked if she's pregnant — again. This pregnancy, like her first, is a consequence of forced incest with an otherwise absentee father, an act that's occurred, without objection, under the knowing eye of Precious' mother. And if you think I've given too much away, don't worry: Precious is just getting started.
Daniels refuses to make any of this easy on the audience. Though some difficult material is presented with expressionistic flourishes — a gritty doppelganger to daydream fantasy sequences in which Precious imagines herself walking the red carpet, posing at a photo shoot, or singing in a church choir, a boy toy always at her side — Daniels doesn't spare any details of deprivation. And, perhaps more provocatively, his depiction of Precious' unhealthy environment isn't restricted to the horror-show stuff but extends to a litany of more mundane ills: a constant diet of bad food (shots of pig feet boiling in a pot, Precious vomiting at school after eating a bucket of stolen fast-food fried chicken), junk television, cigarettes, lottery tickets, and general torpor encouraged by a mother who dismisses any sign of ambition: "School ain't gonna help you. Take your ass to the welfare office. You think you something special?"
Precious should be a hard slog, but this up-from-tragedy story is mitigated by bits of unforced humor and lightness. And though Daniels direction is a little overheated at times (a museum field trip threatens to morph into a "We Didn't Start the Fire" montage and the film opens with a too-obvious bit of symbolism in the form of a bright red scarf against a rusting, gray urban backdrop), the story is powerful and is made more so by a battery of excellent performances.
As Precious, newcomer Gabourey Sidibe delivers a reserved performance that fits a sensitive but barely literate character who has spent years internalizing her pain. ("They talk like TV channels I don’t watch," Precious thinks in voiceover as she watches her teacher — Paula Patton — interact with her female partner.)
Comedic actress Mo'Nique overwhelms as Precious' mother, finding some small measure of pity in a despicable character whom neither she nor Daniels at all absolves. There's no vanity in her performance. (Nor is there in the performances of a couple of pop stars — Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz — who show up in effective and unflashy small roles.)
Third at the box office last weekend despite still being in limited release, Precious is shaping up to be this year's Slumdog Millionaire: an underdog film about an underdog protagonist that is becoming a leftfield hit and sure to follow up its box office with some awards-season hardware. Unlike Slumdog Precious' fantasy elements are presented as just that — fantasy — and the film doesn't end with a dance sequence but with hard-won pragmatism: a treacherous walk into a new life that's anything but settled.