Precious, directed by Lee Daniels, based on the novel Push by Sapphire and adapted for the screen by Geoffrey Fletcher, starring Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Paula Patton, and Mariah Carey (2009): High-octane melodrama in the Dickenisan mode, complete with complicatedly awful situations piled one on top the other and characters with improbable, descriptive names.
Terrible things happen or are described every few minutes, but the arc of the story is always upwards, to redemption or, to be all psychobabbly, to self-actualization. One can see why Tyler Perry and Oprah co-produced the movie: it’s a feel-good story done in the broad strokes of a popular memoir; a schematic, life-affirming roller-coaster. Or maybe Haunted House ride.
Clareece Precious Jones (Sidibe) is an illiterate, overweight, sexually, emotionally and physically abused NYC teen. She’s sorta like Little Nell or Little Dorrit, though she doesn’t have to die like the former or be married like the latter to reach some sort of transformative apotheosis at the end of her story.
Pregnant with a second child created by incestuous rape, Precious finds hope in remedial schooling, a sympathetic teacher (Blue Rain [!], played by Patton) and a helpful counselor (Carey, deglammed to the point of unrecognizability). Lenny Kravitz wanders through as a sympathetic nurse’s aide, to little effect, while Sidibe’s classmates (all female) are cleanly and simply drawn, like Archie Comics characters — each has a couple of defining character traits, but they aren’t really characters.
The performances of Sidibe and Mo’Nique, as Precious’s sad monster of a mother, sell the movie. Mo’Nique gets a couple of ‘Big Speech’ moments that helped earn her the Supporting Actress Oscar. She’s a terrific, occasionally terrifying monster of a woman, her moral failings surpassed only by her Cyclopean self-pity. Sidibe’s got a harder acting job that she pretty much pulls off, getting us to care about a character who initially shows almost nothing on the surface, her emotions hidden behind a mostly impassive face that will become more mobile and demonstrative as she gradually lifts herself up and out of her Dantean Inferno of a life.
Sidibe gives a marvelous performance — she has the actorly reserve to pull off breakdowns without chewing the scenery. This is about as good as melodrama gets. Highly recommended.