Precious: A Harlem Bildungsroman


precious-filmAdapting Sapphire's searing novel Push for the screen, director Lee Daniel and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher have fashioned an unrelenting drama about a castoff New York soul struggling to survive: a horrid tale of child abuse, a crime in its unabashed frequency that nowadays seems as engrained in mythic Americana as apple pie and the Yankees.

There are no World Series tickets for Harlem resident Claireece "Precious" Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) in 1987, and there are no a la mode pastries, just stolen fried chicken for breakfast, hairy pig's feet for dinner, and a whole lot of being bullied.

Pauline Kael once wrote of Travis Bickle (DeNiro's Taxi Driver) that here was "a man who couldn't find any point of entry into human society," and that's the quandary Precious has found herself in for all of her 16 years.

An unblessed, morbidly obese teen with her second child on the way, both kids having been fathered by her dad; Precious waddles about life from school to home and back again with a few brief forays elsewhere to place her mother's daily bets and purchase her cigarettes.

Precious's mom, Mary (Mo'Nique), ain't no day in the country. Belittling her daughter from morning to night, Mary forced Precious to give birth to her first child on the kitchen floor while she kicked her in the head. (The girl was born with Downs Syndrome and lives with Grandma except on the days the Welfare folks pop by. An extra mouth, extra government money.)

So is there hope for a young black woman who can hardly read at the second grade level? One who looks into the mirror and sees a white, blond girl? One whose goals include marrying her white math teacher and living with him in Westchester? There is hope, but don't expect a fairy tale ending. When you're in the gutter, stepping up onto the sidewalk seems a whole lot better.

Expelled from her regular junior high school and enrolled in a program for young women with "problems" at the alternative educational institution Each One Teach One, Precious doesn't exactly blossom overnight, but she does grow some roots thanks to several mentors who can see past the pounds and feel the pain, even though all their advice isn't always comprehensible. "They talk like TV shows I don't watch," Precious writes in her notebook, which becomes her main tool of salvation.

Though beautifully acted by all, including Mariah Carey as a social worker, Paula Patton as a teacher, and Lenny Kravitz as a male nurse, without Sidibe there'd be no film at all. It's a brave, endearing performance that no doubt entailed a whole lot of trust on her part. But it's Mo'Nique as the vicious couch potato of a mom who should reap all the year-end awards. Like Shelley Winters in A Patch of Blue and A Taste of Honey, this actress best known for comedic trifles tears up the screen. Virulent self-centeredness has never been better portrayed. - Brandon Judell brandon.jpg

Mr. Judell is currently starring in Rosa von Praunheim's New York Memories, which is still in production. In the fall, he'll be teaching "The Arts in New York City" at City College. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire, Detour, The Advocate, and dozens of other publications.