As a stand-up comic noted for raunchy one-liners, Mo'Nique probably never imagined that her name and the phrase "Best Actress" would find themselves in the same sentence, except perhaps as a punch line. But such is the power of a blunt but undeniably effective new movie — a melodrama with the unwieldy title Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire — that no one's laughing at the notion as Oscar season approaches.
Nor is Mo'Nique's blistering performance as a monstrous mother the only surprise in this passionate tale. Director Lee Daniels was once a casting director, and he's gone out of his way to give plenty of unlikely performers the chance to shine: pop star Mariah Carey, deglammed and ferocious as a bulldog of a social worker; rocker Lenny Kravitz, gently amusing as a head-turning maternity-ward nurse; and most remarkably, newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, making her film debut as Claireece "Precious" Jones, a withdrawn, morbidly obese teenager whose very survival seems unlikely as the movie begins.
The year is 1987, and oddly enough it's the latest disaster in Precious' life — her second pregnancy — that gives her one last chance. The principal at her Harlem school arranges for her to enroll at an "alternative" institution, and though her mother would rather she apply for welfare, Precious grasps at the offer.
Illiterate, bruised and abused at home (both of her pregnancies resulted from rapes at her father's hands), this damaged teen is starting from way less than zero. When a teacher (Paula Patton) asks her to name one thing she's good at, Precious comes up blank. And as director Daniels plunges into her harrowing home life, where her moody mother is as likely to slam a frying pan into her head or hurl a television down stairs at her as to offer a word of kindness, it seems almost preposterous that there's a spark of resilience left to be fanned. But slowly, with a mulish, opaque persistence, she starts to come into her own.
Sidibe, quietly monumental as Precious, is more acted upon than active for much of the picture, her face so full it seems incapable of expression, her movements sluggish and leaden. Once in motion, though, she's formidable enough that only an immovable object could oppose her. Mo'Nique's intransigent parent is that object, and remarkably, Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher have contrived to make her a monster with nuance, so psychologically damaged herself that she doesn't really register what she's doing to her child.
Apart from a few BET-style red-carpet moments played out in Precious' fantasies — and some correspondingly lurid flashbacks to her brutal rapes — the film has been shot with the sort of documentarian realism common in independent features from the era in which the story takes place. And that, I'm guessing, accounts for the way it's been embraced at film festivals from Sundance to Toronto. Daniels may be indulging in stunt casting, and slamming plot points home with sledgehammer subtlety, but the film's milieu and characters feel alarmingly real. And its story ends up packing an emotional wallop as substantial as its title character. (Recommended)