Nothing quite prepares you for the rough-cut diamond that is "Precious." A rare blend of pure entertainment and dark social commentary, this shockingly raw, surprisingly irreverent and absolutely unforgettable story of an obese, illiterate, pregnant black Harlem teen circa 1987 is one that you hope will not be dismissed as too difficult, because it should not be missed.
"Precious: Based on the novel 'Push' by Sapphire" will challenge you, but it will also move you as it rocks between the horrific realities and escapist fantasies of 16-year-old Claireece Precious Jones (impressive newcomer Gabourey Sidibe), with a life so besieged that a mother's rage and a father's rapes are what passes for love.
At first glance there is little that seems precious about Precious, whose 330 pounds and constant scowl is cross-the-street intimidating. But then filmmaker Lee Daniels, who is known for producing tough films on tough subjects -- "Monster's Ball" and "The Woodsman" among them -- is not about to go soft on this story.
"Push," poet/performance artist Sapphire's first novel, was a sensation when it landed in 1996 for its graphically told story of the verbal, physical and particularly the sexual abuse experienced by Precious, who narrates in such fractured English that at first it's like another language.
Working with screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher, Daniels has lightened the story a few shades by creating many fantasy sequences not found in the book, which is not to say they've made "Precious" easy to watch, just easier.
In a no-child-left-behind world, Precious was lost long before she could be left. No self-esteem to speak of, she tries for invisibility. At school it's easier, no one is really interested. At home, she's got a soul-destroying nightmare of a mother who has made Precious her project. Played to fearless and godless perfection by Mo'Nique, Mary spends her days in front of the TV while hurling a steady stream of invective -- along with the occasional frying pan -- in her daughter's direction.
Hope should not exist in all that despair, but Precious turns out to be an odds-defying storm that batters the emotions, shakes the soul and still manages to put a silver lining on the blackest of clouds in ways you might not have thought possible.
When the school counselor discovers Precious is pregnant, the story begins its painful descent into the world of America's underclass. There is no safety net for Precious -- her family, social services and the educational system have all failed her.
Like the book, the dialogue is graphic and politically incorrect. Precious' first child, a daughter, is called Little Mongo, because of her Down syndrome. When the teenager finds one of her teachers is a "straight-up lesbian," she says so before going on to list all the things homosexuals haven't done to her. With Mary, meanwhile, it's not so much the words themselves that shock, though it sometimes seems her vocabulary doesn't extend beyond four-letter words, but the molten lava underneath them.
Fortunately for us, Precious has a very rich and playful imagination. When bad things happen, and they so often do, the images dissolve into music video moments, or in one case a Sophia Loren film, where Precious is loved, respected and always in the spotlight. While reality is Harlem gritty, her fantasies are mostly glam and glitz and, like dreams, vanish all too soon.
This second pregnancy turns out to be her salvation, with Precious transferred to an alternative learning program. Her teacher, Blu Rain (Paula Patton), begins to change her life by getting Precious and the other rainbow coalition of failures in the class to write about their lives.(Xosha Roquemore as the sassy, gum-smacking Joann is a total kick).
Most of the characters are a study in restraint. Mariah Carey, sans makeup and minis, is almost unrecognizable and a pleasant surprise as the tough New York social worker who eventually gets Precious' case. Patton, who could have gone overly teary as Precious' past emerges, instead keeps pushing her to succeed, giving the sentiment when it comes, a potent spareness. That the director trusts us to find the emotional peaks and valleys on our own is one of the film's grace notes.
The power on the screen, and it is substantial, is shared by Mo'Nique and Sidibe, with the director leading them to the brink in scene after scene. Sidibe does well moving between the mumbling wall of insecurity that is Precious and the polished, preening celebrity of her dreams.
But it is the boldness of Mo'Nique's performance that sweeps you away. Her final moments are so emotionally wrenching, their cruelty so unnerving, that it should be experienced firsthand. There is an earlier scene, though, that hints at the character's wicked soul. Mary is standing alone in the living room watching a game show on TV, a cigarette dangling from her mouth. She's stuffed herself into a delicate-looking tank top and leggings, their tiny blue flowers in contrast to the monster inside. She does a slow bump and grind, carefully smoothing back her hair. Lust and menace hang so heavy in the air, the devil himself would be afraid.
There was a risk in keeping "Precious" raw and unvarnished, in going in close on so many ugly truths, but it was worth it for the powerful social drama that emerged. For some there will be the worry that those truths are too difficult to see. They are not. Yes there is darkness, but there is also light.
MPAA rating: R for child abuse including sexual assault and pervasive language
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Playing: In limited release. Locally at the Landmark, West L.A.; ArcLight Hollywood; the Bridge: Cinema de Lux; and Magic Johnson Crenshaw 15