Deborah Ross

Mixed blessings | 30 January 2010

Precious<br /> 15, Nationwide

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15, Nationwide

Claireece ‘Precious’ Jones is a 21-stone, illiterate, black, 16-year-old girl with a father who rapes her — not every day, but still — and a mother so insanely abusive that she throws televisions at her and force-feeds her hairy pig’s feet. (Not every meal, but still.) Precious has already had one child by her father — a Down’s syndrome girl, known non-affectionately by the family as ‘Mongo’, short for Mongoloid — and is pregnant with another. She describes herself as ‘just ugly black grease to be wiped away’, but is then dispatched to an alternative school where a saintly teacher works her saintly magic and, what do you know, Precious is precious, and worth something after all. This is a film that veers between being something special and something tritely familiar but, even at its worst, it’s entirely rescued by the two main bravura performances: Gabourey Sidibe is fantastically heartbreaking as Precious, while Mo’Nique is frighteningly convincing as her mother, Mary. Mo’Nique is an American comedienne, by all accounts, and, no, I have no idea why she spells her name like that. Perhaps she thinks it makes her U’Nique.

The film, which is set in Harlem, begins with Precious in a maths class, sitting at her desk, although she is so mountainous it’s more like the desk is sitting at her, and cowering. Precious is not just black but very black; so black she almost shines blue. And her face is so big and heavy all normal expression is limited. She rarely looks up, talks little and, when she does, mumbles half-heartedly, as if no onc could possibly be interested in what she has to say, which no one is. Yet somehow — with the set of her chins, with a single, blistering gaze, with a defeated munch on that hairy pig’s foot — Sidibe always lets us know there is someone in there, and this someone is hurting. You will feel for Precious and you will root for Precious but you wouldn’t want to go round for dinner.

The Jones family live in a tenement and subsist on welfare. We only ever see Precious’s father from the waist down, when he’s unbuckling his belt and about to do his worst. As she is being raped, Precious disassociates from real life by fantasising she is the much-adored star of a pop video. The director, Lee Daniels, uses these dream clips — Precious at a movie première; Precious being canoodled by some hunk; Precious looking in a mirror and seeing herself as a skinny, white, gorgeous blonde — throughout, perhaps to underline how much she yearns to be loved and appreciated, but I do wonder if they’re wise. Can’t we work this out for ourselves? Haven’t we done so already? Meanwhile, Mary smokes, swears, throws pots, pans and televisions, tells Precious what a retarded, fat, black bitch she is and gets those hairy pig’s feet sizzling. (Sorry to appear so hung up on the pig’s feet, but they are very hairy.) Mongo is being brought up by Precious’s grandmother unless the social worker is due a visit, in which case Mary dons a wig and pretty dress and pretends it is her so that she can collect the welfare cheque. Mary sweet-talks the social worker with Mongo on her lap, but once the social worker has departed — thump! — Mongo is tossed away. It’s horrible but also funny. The film, at least initially, has a camp edge that makes it all rather special.

However — and this is quite a big ‘however’, so do pay attention — the film’s tone shifts considerably once Precious herself is shifted from mainstream school to the alternative school, where our saintly teacher, Miss Rain (Paula Patton), immediately gets to work delivering the saintly goods. (If you ever have saintly goods to deliver, I’d recommend FedEx rather than the regular mail.) At this point, Precious transforms into an Inspirational Teacher Movie and cliché follows cliché with breakthrough moments, heart-warming moments, self-realisation moments and, of course, we now know it’ll culminate in an upbeat, redemptive ending. We know this as surely as we know, for example, that when a detective is suspended from a case he’ll go on to solve it. Still, it is worth sticking with it to the very end, if only to see a glammed-down Mariah Carey playing a social worker and playing her rather well, thanks for asking, as well as Mary’s final monologue, which is such a powerhouse of narcissistic self-pity you almost feel sorry for her. But the film dissatisfies as much as it satisfies. Why are all the decent people so light-skinned? Why is the father never held to account? Why didn’t grandma do something? So what this Cri’Tique amounts to, I think, is that this is either a good film with quite a few flaws, or a flawed film which is also quite good, but that’s all right. None of us is perfect, after all.