The title character of Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) is a dangerously obese black teenager with one child by her rapist dad and another on the way, living in a dingy Harlem flat with a toxically abusive mother (Mo’Nique) whose live-under-my-roof rulebook includes subjecting her daughter to cruel beatings and crueller mockery.
The fact that this Sundance-launched despair-fest is certain to land a Best Picture Oscar nod – maybe even the big prize itself – is testament to Precious’ staggering, stirring potency.
There’s little that’s pretty in Claireece ‘Precious’ Jones’ sullen, rancid world, even as she drifts into TV-inspired flights of fantasy about being a world-famous superstar. Face locked in a self-loathing frown, her passivity slowly begins to melt away when she winds up in the esteem-building cocoon of Ms. Rain’s (Paula Patton) remedial class for wayward girls.
Yes, the scenario is facile, but there’s a tsunami of pain and pathology along the way. Lee Daniels produced Monster’s Ball and The Woodsman so he has roots in dank, pitiless material. But his only previous directing gig – 2005’s Shadowboxer, about a terminally ill hitwoman raising the newborn babe of her last job with her lover/stepson – wasn’t a harbinger of great things. So his step up here is nothing short of revelatory, even if he can plumb the depths of Precious’ torment with a tad too much glee.
Precious is a film of thunderclap revelations. Mo’Nique’s Mother Mary is the most compelling screen gorgon since Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford, an ugly, seething cauldron of self-justifying bitterness, while Mariah Carey strips off her superdiva varnish to convey hard-nosed authenticity as a tough-love welfare counsellor.
But Sidibe is the real find here. In her first ever acting job, she delivers a quiet, instinctive, soul-shaking performance that cuts to the quick – and leaves you wanting more.
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A moving mix of melodrama and social tract graced by courage, heart, soul and a lumbering but resilient heroine.