A word of warning: this is not an uplifting film. It is however one of the rare films worthy of the epithet “unmissable”. Set in 1987, it tells the story of Claireece Precious Jones (usually known simply as Precious): a 16 year old black girl who is obese, illiterate and pregnant for the second time by her father. She lives in Harlem with her physically and emotionally abusive mother, while her first child (‘Mongo’, short for ‘Mongoloid’, who has Down Syndrome) lives with her grandmother. We never see Precious’s father, aside from a solitary flashback to his rape of her – presumably one of many such occurrences – while she is briefly unconscious after being knocked out by her mother, who lashed out in rage as a consequence of what she saw as Precious’s culinary inadequacies. As I said, this is not an uplifting film.
We first meet Precious in her class room, as she slaps a student disrupting her maths class and fantasises about the future she hopes to share with her handsome maths teacher. This is soon shattered and she is called to the Principal’s office to discuss her second pregnancy. Though she is suspended from school, her Principal (prompted by the handsome maths teacher who says he sees promise in Precious) arranges for her to attend an alternative school. Her mother is, to say the least, scathing about these new educational prospects: “you’re a dummy, bitch. You will never know shit. Don’t nobody want you. Don’t nobody need you.” In spite of this, Precious goes on to the new school (“Each One Teach One”) which, along with the birth of her son, sets into motion the chain of events which will ultimately take her out of her mother’s house.
An undercurrent of fantasy pervades the film, as Precious periodically escapes from the grim particularity of her circumstances into fabulous dreams of recognition and happiness. However even in these fantasies, Precious can never entirely escape: nightmares about rape drift seamlessly into fantasies of celebrity and fame. Similarly at one point she looks into the mirror and sees a pretty slim white girl of a similar age and yet seeing herself in these terms gives her the confidence to go out and face the world. This ambiguity, as reality and fantasy never stand entirely apart, sums up the film as a whole: there’s simply too much to it for it to be neatly encapsulated in simple terms.
The film seems like this should feel manipulative, given the ambiguous mix of pity and admiration it provokes, however somehow it just doesn’t: this is a testament to the quality of Lee Daniels’ direction and the performance of Gabourey Sidibe as Precious. The quiet power and earnest defiance which she brings to the character leaves the audience rooting for her in the most genuine way, without ever reducing the film to the level of sentimental fable. [spoilers ahead: stop now if you want to avoid them] This avoidance of sentimentality continues right until the end, as Precious stands up to and overcomes her mother. I found this the most upsetting scene in the film by far, largely because it was so difficult to know what to ultimately make of it. As Precious walks confidently off into the distance, mother to two children, what are we to make of her mother? Neither contempt nor pity seem appropriate and yet we are left with these and much else besides. Then the credits roll… and the only thing I’m sure of is that I want to see the film again…