We See Chick Flicks: “Precious”

Starring Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey
Directed by Lee Daniels
Based on the book by Sapphire

After all the hype surrounding “Precious” — the critical acclaim, Oprah’s endorsement, and the back-and-forth between some bloggers and reviewers about Gabby Sidibe’s weight — I walked into the theater this weekend with one expectation and that was to cry my eyes out. And indeed, my eye makeup suffered. This movie left me a bit shell-shocked, to be honest, both positively — because of the incredible performances — and negatively, because it paints such a bleak portrait of a way of life that I don’t have any experience with. It was hard to watch and not one of those movies you walk out of the theater declaring as “wonderful.” But, man, was it powerful.The Lowdown: Sidibe plays Precious, a 16-year-old girl who is imposing in stature — she’s tall and, yes, quite overweight — but quiet and reserved in demeanor, save those rare moments when she is, say, wailing on a boy in her class for talking during math. She is pregnant with her second child, thanks to multiple rapes at the hands of her own father. Her mother, Mary (played by Mo’Nique), is a willing bystander in her sexual abuse and is physically, verbally, and emotionally abusive to Precious on a constant basis. Precious’ first child is known only as “Mongo,” short for Mongoloid, because she was born with Down’s syndrome. Mongo lives with her great-grandmother, who brings her to see Precious and her mother only when the social services worker comes by for a visit — this is only so Mary can continue to receive additional welfare money, under the guise that she is caring for her grandchild.

Precious has been kicked out of her public school for being pregnant, but a concerned faculty member gets her enrolled in an alternative school where Precious meets possibly the first person ever to show her true kindness, her teacher, Ms. Rain (Paula Patton). Ms. Rain encourages her students to embrace learning (rather than just passing the GED test) by getting them to write in journals. Throughout her many experiences with abuse, Precious has escaped from her misery (both momentary and ongoing) by fantasizing about the life she’d like to have as a woman adored, famous, and rich, with a light-skinned boyfriend. But by writing both about her real-life experiences and the fairy tales she wishes were a reality, Precious finally starts to develop the hope that her life can be more than what it has been for her mother and that she can create a life for her children that is unlike her own upbringing.

The Verdict: “Precious” is brutal to watch. During a much-discussed scene in which Mary torments Precious both verbally and physically, telling her she’s “nothing” and accusing her of stealing away her man (Precious’ father), I felt nauseous. Monique is utterly terrifying and deplorable as Mary, yet she manages to give her the tiniest glimmer of humanity — Mary wasn’t born a terrible mother; she became one through her own awful circumstances. I still wanted Precious to hit her over the head with a frying pan.

Sidibe is wonderful as Precious. New York’s David Edelstein inspired some serious ire when he wrote that Precious’ looks are:

“…jarring to the point of being transgressive, its only equivalent to be seen in John Waters’s pointedly outrageous carnivals. Her head is a balloon on the body of a zeppelin, her cheeks so inflated they squash her eyes into slits. Her expression is either surly or unreadable. Even with her voice-over narration, you’re meant to stare at her ebony face and see nothing. The movie is saying that she’s not an object, but the way that Sidibe is directed she becomes one.”

Don’t believe him. Precious’ eyes may be “slits,” but they conveyed plenty to me. Edelstein, and perhaps others, may not be able to see past her ebony face, but Sidibe’s portrayal of Precious was utterly spot-on as far as I was concerned. I was on her team from the minute her face, dark as it may be, lit up the screen. Phooey to those who say otherwise!

In addition to Mo’Nique and Sidibe, “Precious” features notable performances from two musicians — a nearly unrecognizable but seriously good Mariah Carey, as well as Lenny Kravitz as a male nurse who is especially kind to Precious. Paula Patton is lovely as Ms. Rain, and the young ladies who play Precious’ classmates at school provide some much-needed comic relief.

“Precious” ends hopefully, even after many, many more blows are delivered. I won’t give much away for those who haven’t seen it or read the book, but trust when I — and just about every other reviewer out there — says this film was a real, harrowing, and heart-wrenching must-see.