Forget the hyped-up artificiality of the Saw films. The real horror show is the home life endured by the title character in Lee Daniels’ bleak but ultimately hopeful drama Precious, based on Sapphire’s 1996 novel Push.
Clareece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe, in a true breakout performance) is an illiterate and obese teenager in 1987 Harlem. Pregnant with her second child and hated by her vicious mother (Mo’Nique, who should receive an Oscar nomination), Precious is given one last chance to make her vivid dreams come true when she is sent to an alternative school housed in an old hotel.
Her teacher, Ms. Rain (the gorgeous and elegant Paula Patton), works hard to break through Precious’ defenses and inadvertently teaches her a lesson in gay tolerance when Precious realizes that her mentor is a lesbian. The other person reaching out to Precious is her social worker Mrs. Weiss (well played by an unrecognizable Mariah Carey), who goads her into revealing the father of her two children.
The grittiness that out director Daniels evokes is hard to watch at times, especially Mo’Nique’s explosive abuse, but it’s necessary to allow us the happiness of seeing Precious become her own person. Sidibe is an utterly natural talent, hard to warm up to at first until she reveals the life that’s inside her imposing frame.
Mo’Nique plumbs depths of rage and violence few name actresses would ever reveal. Patton, who looks like a young Debbie Allen and possesses the same kind authority, is utterly lovely as the idealistic teacher. Carey, Lenny Kravitz (as Nurse John) and Sherri Shepherd (as school secretary Cornrows) are all great and let go of any vanity in favor of total commitment to their roles.
If you can stand the heat in Precious’ pressure-cooker kitchen, you’ll be rewarded with one of the best cinematic experiences of the year with Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire.
UPDATE: Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com.
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.