Regardless of whether you deem it bold art or a riveting hodgepodge, “Precious” — a sticky mixture of inspiration drama, gothic horror, contemporary neorealism, pop-flashy fantasy and heroic-teacher genre formula — is an undeniably moving film about the oppression and triumph of an abused teen.
Officially titled “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” the movie presents itself as small but delivers big — the converse of so much Hollywood fare.
It succeeds because director Lee Daniels, working from screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher’s adaptation of poet Sapphire’s book, creates credible (albeit extreme) scenarios, presents them skillfully and plugs us into a compelling emotional core.
Set in 1987 Harlem, N.Y., the drama presents the anti-storybook life of Claireece Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), a 16-year-old illiterate, extra-large black schoolgirl. Raped repeatedly by her father, Precious is pregnant for a second time with his baby.
She lives with her mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), a violent, verbally abusive layabout who merits inclusion in the catalog of horrific movie moms.
The transformation begins for Precious when she’s sent to an alternative school because of her pregnancy.
There, with teacher Ms. Rain (Paula Patton) and some spirited classmates, she finds the supportive family she never had. She learns to read and write, addresses issues involving her baby, and, despite a plot development indicating severe challenges ahead, glows with the new experience of hope.
Daniels, whose freshman feature was the all-over-the-place “Shadowboxer,” again delivers a ragbag — everything from stylized rape flashbacks to brutal mother-daughter dynamics to urban schoolgirl discourse to fantasy sequences in which Precious imagines herself as, among other incarnations, a red-carpet celebrity and a young, blond white woman.
Some of this material is in sync with Precious’ story. Some, like an Italian neorealist moment, feels like filmmaker tricks .
Yet, the negatives are more than counterbalanced by a general narrative cohesiveness, an observant depiction of historical along with individual oppression, and, foremost, a steady lock on the pain and the suppressed potential of Precious.
The result is a unique personal story enhanced by social dimension and emotional current — a drama that engrosses, entertains and socks you.
Making her feature debut, Sidibe is a marvel. She’s heartbreaking where she needs to be, and, crucial to the upbeat tone that Daniels achieves along with the harshness, she’s a joy to watch as her character’s sense of self and purpose develops.
The comedian Mo’Nique, meanwhile, soars in a problematically written role that — excluding a late-stage monologue in which she devastatingly delivers some crucial humanity — borders on being a cartoon.
Mariah Carey — that’s right — is fine as Precious’ caseworker. And Lenny Kravitz provides needed lightness as Nurse John.
Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
Starring Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey
Written by Geoffrey Fletcher
Directed by Lee Daniels
Running time 1 hour 49 minutes