Poverty is ugly. Every now and then, we need to be reminded of that.
Precious, the brutal and unflinching film based on the novel Push by Sapphire, gives us neediness at its ugliest and most shocking. But in making us stare at the very poorest and the obese, mumble-mouthed title character, this film illuminates and uplifts by putting a human face --- a homely one --- on it.
Gabourey Sidibe might never be a movie star. But she brings Clareece "Precious" Jones to vivid life, a 16-year-old kicked out of her Harlem high school for being pregnant with her child-abusing father's second baby. Now he's gone and Mom (Mo'Nique), a character so hatefully larger than life she could be out of a Dickens novel, abuses Precious and uses her to cheat the welfare system.
"You're a dummy," Mom spits. "Nobody wants you. … You'd better get yourself down to the Welfare!"
Precious escapes from the beatings and harangues with fantasies of celebrity, dance fame and handsome beaus.
"I'm gonna break through. I'm gonna be normal. Someday!"
Her last hope is a government safety net, a special school where a noble teacher (Paula Patton) takes an interest. A social worker (Mariah Carey) gets her to tell her story. Slowly, Precious discovers her self-esteem and connects with her class of fellow misfits.
Director Lee Daniels takes us on a journey --- letting us look down our noses at this misshapen lump of a girl with contempt and pity. But Sidibe plays shadings of strength underneath to eventually win our grudging respect.
Patton and Carey do solid work as positive female role models. But it is the plus-size comic Mo'Nique who fearlessly takes us into a dark hole of the soul. As a poster villain for every awful cliche of "welfare queen," this mother simmers in her ignorance, glued to game shows, primping for dates that never come, exploding in violence whenever she realizes that beating down Precious is all she has. It is a stunning performance, one of the year's best.
Daniels, whose Tennessee and Shadowboxer were little-seen, creates elaborate and gritty flashbacks that match this girl's gritty world. Precious has an imagination as limited as her vocabulary, and the dream sequences --- snapshots in an album that come to life, imagining arguments with Mom as an Italian neo-realist film playing on TV --- spin out of her immediate experience, a poor, ignorant child's idea of "glamour."
The film's message has touches of the sermons of Oprah and her film acolyte, Tyler Perry (who took this film under their wings), and of the poem And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou. Obvious and ugly moments aside, Precious can't help but uplift. This is what the bottom looks like, these are some of the reasons people are there, and here is hope that humanity can shine through even in lives all but smothered in bleak helplessness.