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When a film aims for greatness and falls just short of its target, one can dwell on its attributes or nit-pick its failings. In the case of Precious, I’m inclined to take the high road, because of the movie’s raw emotionalism and exceptional performances.

Moviegoers are conditioned to expect a story like this to be true; this one…

isn’t, but it’s rooted in truth, as the acclaimed writer Sapphire observed it when she worked as a teacher in Harlem in the 1980s. The risk in adapting it for film is blending harsh reality with the melodrama of its leading character’s everyday life. What anchors the film is the extraordinary performance of newcomer Gabourey Sidibe as Precious, a sullen, overweight teenage girl whose life experience has closed her off from world. We know she’s bright because she gets high marks in school, but even that is used as ammunition against her by her monster of a mother, a layabout played with ferocious intensity by comedienne Mo’Nique.

How Precious finally seeks escape from her dead-end existence is the crux of the story, and the reason the film isn’t merely an exercise in misery. The character’s gradual emergence from her shell is believable, and the characters she encounters are well-drawn, but this is where the film loses its sureness of footing. Is it because everything about Precious’ life has been so unrelentingly tough that it’s hard to accept her change of fortune, or because we don’t see enough of the supporting characters to relate as well to them? I’m not sure. Paula Patton is credible as a dedicated teacher, Lenny Kravitz is quite good as a friendly male nurse, and a deadpan Mariah Carey is surprisingly believable as a city social worker. Perhaps it’s the subconscious knowledge that these people are actors playing roles that makes it difficult to accept them at face value, whereas the unknown Sidibe seems to inhabit her character so fully. In any event, writer Geoffrey Fletcher and director Lee Daniels have created a kind of testament I’m sure many viewers will respond to.

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