CO-PRODUCED BY OPRAH WINFREY and Tyler Perry, the awkwardly titled Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire is this year's feel-good-by-feeling-bad Oscar bait: a relentlessly sordid bit of ghetto tourism that invites audiences to wallow in unimaginable misery for 110 minutes, only to emerge from their cinematic journey more enlightened, more aware, more... human. (Thanks, Oprah!)
Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) is a 16-year-old black girl who's borderline illiterate and lives in poverty with her physically and verbally abusive mother, Mary (Mo'Nique). And she's fat. (Euphemisms need not apply—the boldly cast Gabourey Sidibe doesn't have a "pretty face," nor is she "curvy." She's the fattest woman seen onscreen in a non-comedic role in recent memory.) Precious is so fat, in fact, that you might not notice she's pregnant—it's her second child, both the result of being raped by her father.
When Precious isn't being raped by her dad or dodging the frying pans her mother throws at her head, she's being bullied at school. She takes refuge in glittery daydreams of stardom, but it isn't until she's accepted into an alternative school—where a kindly teacher (Paula Patton) takes an interest—that her life starts to turn around. It's a predictable cinematic trajectory, distinguished largely by Precious' willingness to articulate the sordid details of its character's life.
That the acting is terrific may come as a surprise, considering the cast: Mariah Carey plays a take-no-shit social worker, Lenny Kravitz is a gold-hearted male nurse, and comedian Mo'Nique (The Parkers, Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins, Phat Girlz) rages across the screen as Precious' violent mother. The film's best performances, though, come from the ragtag group of girls in Precious' new school, who infuse the often-melodramatic script with irreverence and liveliness.
The film's been lauded for its uncompromising depiction of Precious' wretched situation, but it's worth considering why, exactly, Precious spends so much time mired in the sordid, brutal details of its protagonist's life. Sexual abuse and incest are realities, and there's no reason why art shouldn't confront them. But when pop culture addresses them (and Precious, with its against-all-odds cheerleading and music-video casting, is very much a pop-culture commodity), the results deserve scrutiny. The dividends of a rape scene should not be an audience emboldened or titillated by a brush with the "real." Precious' triumph is not that it gives voice to a victim of domestic violence and sexual abuse—humanity's innate prurience guarantees an audience for those details. No, Precious' real success is on a smaller scale: It makes a sympathetic protagonist of a poor, fat, black girl. Whether director Lee Daniels & Co. could've achieved the same result without invoking a level of abuse that would make a sympathetic protagonist out of Hitler, we'll never know.