Precious: The Protagonist’s Circumstances Are Unrelenting
“What do I mean,” a teacher asks a class of problem students late in Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, “when I say ‘The protagonist’s circumstances are unrelenting’?” It’s a question that seems wildly out of place in this particular classroom setting, given the difficulties these troubled teenage girls have shown thus far with basic skills — reading, writing, not being horrible to one another in class. Paula Patton, the actress who plays the teacher in question, delivers the query with a bit of a sly smile, because it’s addressed not to the students, of course, but to the movie itself.
But it turns out she’s asking the wrong question of Precious, directed by Lee Daniels. After watching this much-praised, much-criticized drama, you may ask: What, if anything, does it mean that the protagonist’s circumstances are so fucking unrelenting?
The troubles endured by Claireece “Precious” Jones, the teenager played with great sympathy by Gabourey Sidibe, are legion: Physical abuse, sexual abuse, rape, two pregnancies, obesity, self-loathing, illiteracy. By the time that Precious learns that on top of everything else, she’s HIV-positive, half the audience at the screening I attended gasped in horror and the other half half-laughed. It’s to both Precious’s credit and to its detriment that the movie doesn’t believe in doing anything halfway; if Daniels’ willingness to go over the top causes the movie to leap into full-on exploitation at times, it also fosters a fearlessness in his actors that’s responsible for the movie’s most stunning moments.
Precious, 16, dark-skinned and enormously overweight, spends the worst parts of her life in a fantasy world: Amid popping flashbulbs, she’s a celebrity, she’s rich, she’s fabulous, she’s wanted, she’s thin, she’s white. In real life, those worst times include being raped by her father, beat up by neighborhood punks, and — most frequently — relentlessly and horrifyingly abused by her mother, Mary, played expertly by the comedian Mo’Nique.
Slumped in a chair in front of the television in the rattletrap Harlem apartment she and her daughter share, Mary hurls insults, food, and a television at Precious, her constant stream of invective as careful and calculated as a set at the Improv. That Mary knows her daughter’s weaknesses, and attacks them with devilish intelligence, makes her a movie monster for the ages, but I confess that for most of the movie I remained unconvinced by the over-the-top accolades I had heard for Mo’Nique’s performance. Sure, she can swear — at times, her proficiency with profane rage made me wish Bill Condon would just cast her as Richard Pryor, instead of Marlon Wayans — but the role, for the first nine-tenths of the movie, is one (amazing, hideous) note. But then, late in the movie, long after I’d given up on ever understanding what makes Mary tick, Mo’Nique delivers a monologue that is so heartbreaking, so majestically fucked-up and awful and out of control, that I wrote in my notes: “Oh, I get it now.” (Plus, she addresses the speech to Mariah Carey, playing an even-keeled welfare caseworker, which just makes it more impressive! Carey is not at all bad in Precious, although her most memorable moment is Mo’Nique asking her, “So are you Italian or black or Spanish or what?”) Precious is a movie that, for better and for worse, lets its action and dialogue and personality and imagery spill out all over the place — it’s a film that demands not to be obscured — but Mo’Nique’s grubby, outsized performance eclipses the movie nonetheless.
Sidibe, though, is pretty amazing as well. The scene in which Precious cannily steals, and then ravenously eats, an entire bucket of fried chicken is memorable; Precious’s desperate love for her baby, no matter what the circumstances of his conception or birth, is unforgettable. Placed in an alternative school called Each One, Teach One, Precious cautiously flowers, even as she battles it out with her almost-as-traumatized classmates. (Blu Rain, the teacher played by Patton, may be a cliché of a lesbian of color, what with her impeccable suits and her Ntozake Shange posters, but she’s a hell of a teacher.) Throughout, Sidibe conveys, through an emotionally rich and physically adroit performance, not just Precious’s agony and self-doubt but her ferocious will to survive. “The other day I felt stupid,” she says in voice-over at one point. “Fuck that day.”
Precious gets through her life by making herself absent: Imagining herself away when she’s being raped; staying as invisible as possible when creeping past her snoring mother; disappearing into the back row at her school. The film’s original poster is a striking image, and it gets at the void at the center of Precious, the black hole that is her life. When Precious, stuck in the front row at Each One, Teach One, pipes up in class one day, Blu asks her how speaking in front of everyone makes her feel. “It makes me feel…” Precious replies, then falters. “Here. It makes me feel here.” Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire can barely overcome its own excesses, but you can’t deny the power of its performances, or the torrent of emotion raging through it. There’s there there.