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To the extent that Precious is about Clareece Precious Jones, it is a film about the "safety net" of social servants who rescue a gifted but abused adolescent from a toxic domestic situation. It is interesting to hear Precious's voiced-over commentary on the teacher (Paula Patton) and social worker (Mariah Carey) who prod her into literacy and overdue self-esteem, but it is even more interesting to watch the prodding. One comes away from Precious sadly aware of the damage that Hollywood has wrought by decades of casting teachers and social workers as resentful, overworked, and unhelpful bureaucrats. The dramatic tension in the protagonist's story is generated by conditioned expectations that are happily frustrated. We do not see Precious turned down or turned away. We do not see her future blighted by technical errors on welfare paperwork. We do not see her deprived of her children (with whom she shares a father) by an officious nanny state. The story of Precious is a story that works out for the best, for once.
Edifying and agreeable as all of this effective cooperation is, it doesn't make for exciting moviegoing. What does make for exciting moviegoing is the performance of Mo'Nique as Mary, Precious's mother. For most of the film, Mary is abusive and hateful toward her daughter; it is she, and not the teachers or the social workers, who poses an all but mortal threat to Precious's well-being. We don't really understand why Mary is so nasty until the big final scene that makes Precious a must-see film and that ought to land Mo'Nique a lot of plum roles. By this time, Precious has moved into a halfway house with her newborn son, an arrangement that threatens Mary's ADC checks. Claiming that she wants to put her family back together, Mary petitions Precious's social worker to arrange a meeting with her daughter. What begins as a piteous self-justification overtakes Mary completely, becoming the confession of a hopeless narcissist. Amazingly, this makes Mary more human and less monstrous. The transformation of Mary from a witch into a fully-realized human being is a triumph of Mo'Nique's artistry. Mary is shown to be every bit as unfit for motherhood as we feared that she must be, and her deformity is in no sense explained away. But when the scene is over, Mary, too, is a protagonist. After a while, we remember to breathe.
Ms Patton and Ms Carey support the drama with extraordinarily winning performances: you want to hug the women that both of them play. Neither is a fairy godmother; both are just doing their jobs. But they do their jobs with conviction and even, in the case of Blue Rain (Ms Patton), passion. Each actress conveys the difficulty of making good things happen by signaling the intelligence required to take advantage of available resources, and in this way the movie is about them as well. As to Gabourey Sidibe's performance in the title role, it is difficult to say where the actress's raw physical presence stops and genuine acting begins. Ms Sidibe is certainly right for the part. But her motions are somewhat constrained by her bulk, and her face is often closed — her pupils all but invisible — and while this is plausible, it is not especially engaging. That Ms Sidibe convincingly enacts Precious's fantasies of fame and glamour is not clarifying, because these scenes are characterized by a kind of inept exaggeration. Lenny Kravitz is appealing as Nurse John, the lone male in the cast, but I am not sure what, beyond that appeal, his part adds to the proceedings.
Clareece Jones is a girl who has come into the world with few material advantages. If her deprivation has a peculiarly African-American quality, I did not discern it. (November 2009)
Copyright (c) 2009 Pourover Press