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In one of the richest cities in the world, barely 40 blocks away from billionaire's penthouses and $400 strollers, there is Harlem, a neighborhood full of rich culture but also dozens of heartbreaking lives. That was even more true in 1987, the year in which Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' By Sapphire is set, when New York City was poorer than it is now, a black President was a laughable pipe dream, and an obese, illiterate girl like Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) would be hard-pressed to come up with something as audacious as hope.
Really, you can't blame her. Precious's life is like a Grand Guignol version of real-life tragedies, with a mother who isn't just uncaring and angry, but sexually abusive and violent, to Precious and everyone else who comes across her path. Played by Mo'nique with stunning rawness and a complete lack of vanity, Mary spends her days watching game shows and collecting welfare checks, deeply jealous of her 16-year-old daughter who is pregnant, for the second time, with her own father's baby. Though her voiceover narration indicates a sharp, clever mind, Precious is illiterate and failing school, and is sent to the alternative program Each One Teach One, where an infinitely patient teacher somehow named Blu Rain (Paula Patton) teaches Precious and her classmates the ABCs and, of course, a lot more.
The extreme nature of Precious's life can be hard to swallow at first, especially when director Lee Daniels lingers on gruesome close-ups of Precious's rape or even boiling hog's feet on a grimy stove. But it also makes for an even greater contrast in the lighter moments, most of them among Precious's classmates at alternative school. In those scenes we're allowed to truly experience the details of life in poor Harlem, not just wallow in it; each of the students are finely sketched and vivid, and their interactions with Precious help reveal the central character, who even with her voiceover often feels hidden behind her vast, dark face and mush-mouthed voice..
The film doesn't take a classic rags-from-riches trajectory, and every one of Precious's successes is met with a crushing setback. But the film escapes its own grimness and becomes truly astonishing thanks to the performances. From the justly celebrated Mo'nique, who creates a real-life monster who is still somehow recognizable, to Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz quietly slipping their star personas into smaller roles, the cast works together to ground the movie's melodrama in a stark, plain-spoken realism. Best of all, however, is Sidibe, sinking herself into Precious's hulking, graceless figure only so she can emerge near the end of the film, not a different person, but someone with a reason to keep going.
Precious is not easy watching, and its insistence on focusing on the cruel realities of Precious's life sometimes slips into what feels like sadism. Even the fantasy sequences, in which Precious imagines herself as a movie star or even as a white girl, feel cruel for how far removed they are from any life she can hope to lead. The melodramatic story aside, Precious might have been a stronger film had Daniels eased up on the direction, allowing the performances and the setting to speak for themselves rather than laying over them an extra layer of misery. But everyone who made this movie is so fiercely committed, and there's so much greatness amid the flaws, that it's impossible to walk out of the movie, especially in New York, and not see it reflected in the harsh world around you. Precious is the rare movie that earns your tears long after you've left the theater.