Precious (15)


Very hard times in Harlem

There are hard luck stories, there are stories of sick relationships, and there is Precious. Or, to give the film its full, ungainly title, Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire, a literary source said to be even more unflinching in its chronicle of ignorance, misery and sheer barbaric wrongdoing. Forgive me if I don't rush out to buy a copy.

The heroine and narrator of the story is one Claireece Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), a morbidly obese and illiterate 16-year-old growing up in a Harlem tenement in the late 1980s. The girl calls herself Precious, a hideous irony given how little cherished her life has been up to now. Having given birth aged 12 to a child with Down's Syndrome – cheerfully called Mongo – Precious is pregnant again, and has been expelled from school.

It gets worse: the man responsible in both cases is her own father, who, we gather from a squalid flashback, raped her. Her mother, Mary (Mo'Nique), is a welfare-chasing couch potato who serves up a diet of physical and verbal violence, bitterly resentful of her daughter for "taking away" her man. "I shoulda aborted your motherfuckin' ass," she spits.

There is an almost Dickensian horror about this household of abuse, except that Dickens would have sentimentalised the heroine as a bruised angel. Precious is not that. Her addiction to junk food – check her ordering fried chicken in a basket the size of a small skip – has rendered her face so bloated that her cheeks have made slits of her eyes. She has the wide-stepping gait of the grotesquely fat, and neighbourhood toe-rags hurl insults and push her over. What refuge is there for this poor thing? Well, there's the one inside her head, aglow with fantasy images of herself as a disco diva, a red-carpet celebrity and, in one haunting mirror reflection, a thin, white blonde.

A more practical alternative to these illusions comes in the form of a local teaching program that offers help to hardnuts and misfits like herself. "Try for a better future!" is its rallying call, though for Precious any future at all would be welcome at this stage. It's also a ray of light to the audience suffering in the dark, though you may find her teacher Ms Blu Rain (Paula Patton) reminiscent of those conveniently inspirational educators who turn around the lives of difficult urban kids – think Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds or Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers. Ms Rain, rather sleek and well-dressed for a state-funded teacher, doesn't become overbearing with piety, but she's still more a figment of the liberal imagination than a convincing human being. If I also told you there's a social worker played by Mariah Carey you'd probably groan and cross Precious off your list right now, but the astonishment of it is that Carey's not half bad in the role – unglamourised, barely made-up, sensible and straightforward with a won't-get-fooled-again sort of humour.

It's also true that the script, by Geoffrey Fletcher, keeps warning us to resist its own feel-good embrace; it won't allow too much sunshine to illuminate the dark mood. Precious, striving for a better life through education, has still enough hard-edged cynicism to know that words alone won't help her. "The longest journey begins with a single step," she reads on a poster... "whatever the fuck that means," she adds. When Precious returns from the hospital with her second child, her mother asks to cradle the infant, and for a few moments we glimpse the possibility of an unprecedented outbreak of maternal warmth. Next minute, reminded of the child's father, Mary makes a savage attack on Precious, who eventually tumbles with her baby halfway down the tenement steps – followed by the TV set that the unfond matriarch has aimed down the stairwell.

So staggering, in fact, are the offences to decency, loyalty and love that you begin to worry that the film will topple over from the weight of its woes. Even now the Wayans Brothers are probably cooking up a moronic parody of Precious, which will involve a load of crass jokes about bulimia and obesity (they'd call it "Issue Movie" if they knew what it meant). Yet the director Lee Daniels (who produced Monster's Ball) has a sense of humour to leaven the sense of outrage, and within the crew of classmates – Stephanie Andujar, Chyna Layne, Amina Robinson, Xosha Roquemore – who trade a sardonic patter on the sidelines the film orchestrates its funniest scenes. The number of strong women roles is quite unusual for a movie of this kind; men barely figure in it, aside from Lenny Kravitz as a friendly hospital worker. Significantly, Precious's rapist father is seen only at midriff level, the implicit question being: why should he be allowed to show his face?

The moral uplift of Precious isn't quite convincing, and however much Oprah Winfrey contributed as an executive producer, her name on the credits is not an unarguable blessing. Yet the film deserves a wide audience, and it ends very powerfully. Mary, the mother, has been such a loathsome presence that you hardly notice what an amazing performance it has exacted from Mo'Nique, an acclaimed stand-up in the US who here bravely repels our smallest urge to sympathise with her. Until the end, that is, when she somehow curbs her foul-mouthed hostility in a desperate apologia pro vita sua. And I do mean "desperate" – this is a monologue delivered with such hoarse-voiced pleading that it barely looks like acting at all. It's pathetic and sordid and indefensible in content, but that won't prevent you being horribly moved. Oscar might think so, too.

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?