Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Precious is that it isn't the most depressing film of the year.
It tells the story of 16-year-old Clareece "Precious" Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), who lives with her defiantly unemployed mother Mary (Mo'Nique) in a Harlem apartment. As the film begins, Precious is fat, painfully shy, functionally illiterate, and pregnant for the second time by the hand of her abusive father. Her first child, born with Down's Syndrome, is being raised by Precious's grandmother-Precious never sees the child save for a few staged house visits with the social worker (so Mary can collect the welfare check.) Instead of taking her daughter out of this hellhole, Mary sits in front of the TV all day, accuses Precious of "stealing her man" (mind you, she's been repeatedly raped by her own father), and orders her daughter around, hurling projectiles at Precious when she isn't immediately compliant.
What keeps Precious sane throughout all of this is her daydreams. When things are at their absolute worst, she dreams of being a model, an actress, the lead singer in a gospel choir. In these dreams, she always has a "light-skinned" boyfriend and a cute little dog. Sometimes, heartbreakingly, when she looks in the mirror, she sees a white girl with flowing blonde hair.
Then something happens that changes Precious's life—she gets kicked out of school and sent to the "Each One, Teach One" alternative education program. Mary doesn't want her to go, as she can apparently collect more from welfare if her daughter isn't enrolled in school. But Precious somehow, miraculously, finds her way to the school. At Each One, Teach One, she meets the committed, kind-hearted Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), who is determined to teach Precious to read and give her a better life.
If Ms. Rain is perhaps a little too pretty, too compassionate, too perfect, I'm willing to forgive this film. So much of Preciousis so unflinchingly honest, we crave these moments of grace. And who's to say there aren't real life Ms. Rains out there who can swoop into a girl like Precious's life? (An almost unrecognizable Mariah Carey is also on hand as a no-nonsense social worker who comes to Precious's aid.)
It's at Each One, Teach One that Precious learns to read and write, and makes friends with the motley but loving crew of misfit teens who comprise her class. These scenes give the film levity and hope, but things remain brutal at home. To its credit, Precious never, ever allows for a trite happy ending.
Making her film debut, Sidibe is truly remarkable as Precious. The actress doesn't have a single false note—her character is no martyr. As much as we love and root for Precious, she is deeply human-she has flashes of misdirected anger and can be maddeningly passive about her own life. As for Mo'Nique, what can I say? It took incredible guts to play a character as loathsome as Mary, and the Baltimore-based actress/comedian doesn't hold back at all. Mary is a horrible human being, but Mo'Nique reveals her reservoir of resentment and self-pity that makes her actions believable, if not forgivable. She's created a character here, not a monster.
Precious won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance, and I can see why. Upsetting as the film is, Precious's strength and perseverance is inspiring. And director Lee Daniels has managed to present this grim material with humor and humanity. It's a film, and a heroine, I'll never forget.