The story, based on the novel Push by Sapphire, is proper Jeremy Kyle Show material. An overweight, illiterate teenager called Precious (Sidibe) becomes pregnant with her second child - by her own father - and is booted out of school. She constantly uses dreams of a glamorous life as a means of escape, evocatively rendered through an effective array of fantasy sequences such as her own photos coming alive to talk to her.
Such moments are juxtaposed, through slick editing, with the grim reality of her past and present existence. For she lives in a squalid Harlem flat and is frequently subjected to a torrent of verbal and physical abuse from her leeching mother Mary (Mo'Nique). A glimmer of hope emerges when she's offered a place in a special school, but Precious' understandable emotional baggage and brutal mother threaten to ruin her chances of a better life.
A solemn voiceover from Precious instantly hooks us into her psyche and enables us to deeply feel her inner pain and yearning, which she tries to hide from those around her. Sidibe's physical performance is simply outstanding for a newcomer. The hurt is etched all over her face, especially in her eyes, while her mannerisms and general demeanour do their best to exude a sense of dignity and self-worth. It's heartbreaking stuff, especially when her mother venomously spews out lines like "I shoulda aborted your motherf**king ass" in her direction.
The harrowing domestic scenes between the pair are a nest of raw emotion, with Mo'Nique delivering a compelling portrayal of a woman trapped in a solipsistic world of bitterness, addiction and anger. This ultimately culminates in a confrontation with a social welfare officer played by the shockingly excellent and understated Mariah Carey that strips the characters down to their bare psychological bones and is worth the price of admission alone.
There are flaws along the way however. The first half of the movie goes into such intimate detail about Precious' current circumstances, and is so absorbing, that when the narrative starts to jump ahead in the later stages it feels rather unfulfilling at times. It's the filmmaking equivalent of skimming over a couple of key chapters in a book. In addition, the representation of Precious' new schoolteacher often harks back to those inspirational authority figures that have cropped up in plenty of schmaltzy melodramas over the years.
Stylishly told and earnestly acted, Precious is a far from pleasant cinemagoing experience but a worthwhile one. Gabourey Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Mariah Carey and director Lee Daniels all deserve huge praise for painting such a rich and rewarding portrayal of a world that seems alien to those with a more fortunate upbringing than the poor young lady this demoralising yet heartening story is about.
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