There’s a writer who paraphrased the meaning of Christ on the Cross thusly: whatever travails you’re going through, Jesus simply says, “Oh yeah? Me too.”
That’s the significance of the impossible to believe but true story told in the wrenching but, in the end, redeeming “Precious,” directed by Lee Daniels, written by Geoffrey Fletcher, based on the novel "Push" by Sapphire, namely, nothing could be worse than what happens here.
The story’s set in Harlem, in 1987. Precious (Gabourey Sidibe), all of 16 going on 17, struggles to survive an infernal life presided over by a maternal Satan. She’s sexually abused: she had two kids as the result of being raped by her mother’s boyfriend and she has to assist with her mother’s masturbation. She’s physically abused: besides a daily round of beatings she barely survives being murdered by a TV thrown by her mother Mary (Mo’nique) down a stairwell as she holds her newborn son in her arms. She’s good at math but doesn’t play well with others; nor can she read or write, much.
The shit happens, literally, in a squalid, dingy apartment without any sunlight. We watch epic confrontations between Precious and her mother. Precious tries to get by one day at a time and her mother dogs her, verbally, physically, psychologically every step of the way. Gradually Precious gradually fights back and that’s when the movie takes on a dimension of hell-on-Earth that you can’t imagine was possible in a movie.
In one of many impossible-to-believe scenes, when Mary spews every imaginable invective and vitriol (You’re fat, you’re stupid, I should have aborted you, you don’t know what really women do, they sacrifice), you realize both women have been stripped naked of all traces of civility, decency, and humanity.
It’s the first of many titanic clashes that you might think are overplayed and exaggerated, that they’re meant to elicit sympathy, tears, and despair. After all, can anything really be this bad?
But Daniels has cobbled together a story that deals sensitively (yes, that’s the word, in spite of all the volcanic bluster) with hope and fresh starts.
It might seem as if the movie’s a socioeconomic set piece that dissects the vicious cycle all manner of abuse that a particularly demented welfare mom heaps upon her daughter who in turn will heap it on her children.
It’s the remarkably story of a brave young woman who, not born with a silver spoon (a coke spoon, perhaps), wants to escape her present life and get herself together so she can make a better life for her children. Daniels ensures that this pitch perfect production comes to life without losing its focus on this slow, staggering odyssey towards the light.
Mo’nique’s performance as the demon mother is too-good. Her Mary oozes contempt, bitterness, and the potential for violence and mayhem. She’s lazy, self-centered, and relentless in her tragically misguided effort to exact revenge on Precious for – get this - stealing her man. This because the abuse started when Precious was three – three! – and the degenerate preferred sex with the daughter, not the mother. In one of the final scenes, with some of the most effective acting you’ll ever see, Mary comes clean with the motivation for her treachery and you just barely almost feel sorry for her.
Sidibe’s Precious is a cyclone of emotion. Her feelings are intense. Though she may lash out in alpha female violence when she’s mocked or when her babies are threatened, her brute tenderness is both unexpected and moving. Even her silent rages are palpable. She lurches through her tribulations, ungainly at best, but at least she’s in constant motion, planning, wishing, dreaming: when abuse calls, her dreams cast her in the role of a model, a movie star, someone beloved and adored, namely, someone precious.