Because the early screening of Precious came with a warning from the publicist to bring tissues, I fully expected to be a goner. Yet there I sat dry-eyed through all of Lee Daniels' screen adaptation of Sapphire's celebrated 1997 novel Push. The movie has the kind of authenticity and ugly immediacy that make the tears of a viewer sitting in the dark safety of a movie theater seem a little silly indulgent even.
That's not to say there is a lack of compelling emotional material in the story of Claireece Precious Jones, an obese and pregnant teenager whose life so far has been filled with nothing but unrelenting private abuse and systemic public neglect. But to be the moviegoer sniveling over Precious' miseries seemed akin to being the bystander engaging in histrionics at the scene of a train wreck instead of trying to do something, anything.
In Precious' case, having been invisible to the world for most of her life, she would like to be heard, and it is of enormous credit to Gabourey Sidibe an unknown actress making her screen debut that we feel an obligation to catch every confusing piece of dialect or distorted sentence out of Precious' mouth. Sidibe speaks in a soft mutter not always intelligible but warm and highly addictive. The story is set in 1987, in Harlem, and in the movie's first minutes, Precious having been held back many times before is in a junior high math class, projecting a blank hostility to the world. Only her voice invites us in: "I like math," she says dreamily in voice-over. "I don't open my book. I just sit there."
The contradiction awakens the first of many mysteries. If Precious likes math, why not open the book? Daniels, his screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher and Sidibe have made Precious more enigmatic than her literary creator did. Sapphire drops two major bombshells in the book's first sentence, but we're kept mostly in the dark during the film's early scenes. We learn only that Precious is pregnant for a second time much to the disgust of her principal, Mrs. Lichenstein (Nealla Gordon), who tosses her out of school.
At her home, we see too many cats to count, but no evidence of that first child. Precious' mother Mary (Mo'Nique, an actress and comedian who had a role in Daniels' 2005 directorial debut, Shadowboxer), lolls about in a recliner, shouting orders and insults at her daughter when she's not smacking her around: if Precious isn't going to be in school, she'd better get herself to the welfare office and start bringing home her own check. Mary is an unabashed abuser of that system, and she's terrifying unbelievably awful yet completely believable. Mo'Nique should prepare for a busy awards season.
The Jones family home is an amber-lit hell, and we're not initially sure whether Precious is a prisoner or a participant in it. This isn't Bastard out of Carolina, with a cute little girl suffering while we rise up in indignation. The movie allows us moments of judging Precious as Mrs. Lichenstein does and then begins to roll out a series of nightmares that last the whole day long: rape, incest and a mother so lacking in human decency that she not only aided in a father's lust for a child but also considered that child as a witting rival.
But that's only the second or third chapter in a story whose brutal revelations come at regular intervals. A riveting scene near the end of the movie with Mary, Precious and a social worker played by a makeup-free Mariah Carey (who should work for Daniels every chance she gets) is as powerful as anything on film this year. (Look for other stealth casting, including Lenny Kravitz and Sherri Shepherd.) Because Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry are executive producers, you might expect the sort of classic inspirational arc they both favor. But Winfrey and Perry aren't the creative forces behind the movie. They're just getting the word out, and Precious is not so much a see-how-far-she's-come tale as it is an exposing of all the Jones family's dark secrets.
The film's few weak moments are the ones that dovetail with typical inspirational stories. Precious' teacher at her new alternative school is Blu Rain (Paula Patton), and she's as dreamy as her name suggests. She's also kind and patient, except where bureaucracy is concerned; then she's feisty and political. The classroom is filled with societal castoffs, and the scenes there have an unwelcome touch of Welcome Back, Kotter. Precious seems to have an easier time trusting the situation than we do.
Or maybe we're uncertain about whether Ms. Rain is just an extended version of Precious' frequent and vivid fantasies. Daniels shoots Sidibe onstage at the Apollo, as well as magically acting out a scene with Mary from Vittorio De Sica's Two Women and receiving a scarf as a talisman from a red-clad fairy godmother (played by former Essence magazine editor Susan L. Taylor). These sequences have a joyous Wizard of Oz energy to them, and they open the door into Precious' mind in a way even Sapphire couldn't.
That's just one of the reasons the movie is ultimately stronger than the book. Push had the inevitable self-consciousness of something written in dialect; it spoon-fed us Precious' illiteracy along with her shattered innocence. If you didn't understand something in the text, you could move on, sure you were at least getting the gist of it. Sidibe is too commanding a presence to allow such laziness on the viewer's part. The reader also had the option of softening elements of Precious' story (even though Sapphire shared a few sensationalistic details with us that the movie only hints at). On the page, we as readers can pretty Precious up, pretend we wouldn't ignore or judge her if she passed us on the street. But Daniels and Sidibe give us a Precious we can't deny, who earns our respect even more than our pity. Dignity is her victory.