Along the way, some well-meaning but patronizing soul probably told Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) that every day is a gift from God, but she has no reason to believe it. Raped by her father and abused and insulted by her vicious mother (Mo’Nique), the stoic Precious leads a life marked by unimaginable daily horrors. She has, at 16, learned to retreat far inside her own head because despair knows no bottom.
So begins the unflinchingly realistic “Precious,” a film by new director Lee Daniels that contains not the slightest trace of sentimentality. There are no cloying motivational speeches ripped from Hallmark cards. No, “Precious” is a hard movie about hard people — some who choose to accept the misery of their circumstances and some who choose to struggle against them. Daniels means to show us that those who struggle have no guarantees, only hope. And hope can be misleading.
Yet for all the grit, “Precious” is an uplifting film, thanks in large part to a nuanced performance by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe. Sidibe, with her remote eyes, won’t let us shrink from Precious’ pain, though Precious herself has become a master of detachment. As a child she acquired a skill for leaving her body, floating above the beatings and the sexual abuse to a hazy fantasy world. Life, though, has a cruel way of yanking her back down into the dirty apartment she shares with her hateful mother Mary (Mo’Nique), who sees Precious as a live-in slave and bait to hook more welfare checks. Precious weathers the abuse silently, and she might continue to swallow more sadness than humanly possible if not for a suspension — related to her second pregnancy — that leads her to an alternative school. Ms. Rain (Paula Patton) pushes Precious to tell her story through her class journal and connects her with a plainspoken but sympathetic social worker (Mariah Carey). Slowly, with help from both women and from her Each One classmates, Precious begins to find the power in her own voice.
Not one word of all this summary, however, really captures the mix of grim reality and hopefulness that makes “Precious” such a strong film. Based on Sapphire’s novel “Push,” the movie is unrelenting in its examination of what life looks like at its bleakest. Screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher does not soften his script to protect us from seeing the worst parts of Precious’ existence. Neither does Daniels shy away; instead, he uses documentary-style footage to force us inside Precious’ hellish Harlem apartment. In this way, the director eliminates the protective barrier that separates us from the characters. We are stripped of our defenses just as Precious is stripped of hers; her world becomes our world. This technique is effective because it strips away Hollywood gloss, leaving nothing but an unpretty story. Funny, isn’t it, how the most compelling stories tend to be the ones that lack gimmicks?
This, in fact, is where Daniels succeeds the most: telling a compelling story without relying on cliches or melodrama. He lets the actors take the lead, which suggests a level of intuition rarely seen in new directors. Because of this, almost none of the film’s scenes feel contrived, particularly those that take place inside the Each One Teach One classroom. Precious’ classmates chatter and bicker in ways that feel completely natural, and Patton lets Ms. Rain seem just as overwhelmed but eager and open as her students. Carey, remarkably unglammed and subtle, plays a social worker who isn’t delusional enough to believe she can swoop in and rescue Precious. She offers no false hopes, and so her conversations with Precious seem grounded in reality.
Devastatingly real, too, are Mo’Nique and Sidibe, who convey how the same hardship shapes two people differently. Who could have expected this kind of raw, raging performance from Mo’Nique, who’s spent her career languishing in movies like “Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins”? It’s the kind of left-field move that suggests she’s wildly underestimated her own talent. Sidibe matches her, though, not with explosiveness but with intensity. She deeply understands Precious’ pain, understands how she must suppress it until there’s time and space to express it. When those tears come, they feel like a hard-earned breakthrough. Simply put, Sidibe’s performance is a revelation. So is “Precious.”