E: The movie Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire has wormed its way into my mind. I can’t stop thinking about it. I can’t put down the characters or the issues they raise. In some ways, the plot is easily encapsulated: brutalized teen learns to love herself and stand up. Clarice Precious Jones, a pregnant teen in New York City back in 1987, lives in daydreams; in her glittery fantasies, her light-skinned boyfriend, her fans, and the whole world finds her Precious. In one such scene, she imagines herself running away with her middle-aged math teacher. (Her heartbreaking belief that a Harlem public school teacher could afford to live in Westchester still makes me want to cry.) In reality, she lives with her vile, tyrannical mother Mary and stumbles through the day just trying not to get smashed down too badly. Those daydreams sustain her; she escapes into them during beatings and worse. With the help of a kindly counselor (played by a very pragmatic, frumpy Mariah Carey) and some determined educators, Precious learns that she does have worth, that she can have a future, and that she can make one for her children. Precious, a child herself, stands up to protect her own children. And she learns not so much to fight back against her searing, shockingly mercurial and vicious mother, but to stand up and take herself out of harm’s way. She doesn’t get caught in the cycle.
Precious strikes me as an oddly balanced political movie. Conservatives will love this movie; Mary Jones has been poisoned by a pernicious Welfare system. (The scene where she lies to the case worker to keep her checks coming would justify any critic of the system.) Clarice chooses to keep and raise her babies. And the point of it all is that each person needs to take responsibility for themselves; Mary Jones doesn’t, but her daughter Clarice learns to. Progressives, on the other hand, will laud the essential role of social workers to take time and actually affect change, and even more the primacy of education as a means out of dire poverty and despair. A frustrated principal actually shows up at Precious’s home; her teacher crush recommends her for the alternative school that changes her life, not just through her dedicated new teacher Ms. Rains but through the unusual classroom structure and small class size. The movie is a searing indictment of overcrowded urban classrooms; Precious gets As in English though she can hardly read or write or spell. And of course they’ll applaud the movie’s message of tolerance; black, white or hispanic, gay, straight or transgendered, HIV negative or positive, poor or rich, educated or not, what matters is the way you treat other people.
It’s the friends she meets in her alternative school, and her teacher, and a kind nurse from the hospital where she gives birth, who help her feel worth. They make her feel joy; I don’t think she smiles or laughs for at least half of the film. And it’s the overwhelming responsibility of parenthood that shows Precious she can’t sleep through her life; she can take steps for her children that she hadn’t dared for herself. It’s a devastating, inspiring, shocking, horrifying tale. It makes you stand back in awe. When I think of my own socially crippling teenage insecurities, and think of broken Precious finding her center through an unfathomable level of abuse, it makes her recovery seem all the more miraculous.
Precious should pull in nominations for Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Picture with ease. Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay are well within its reach, though not guaranteed. What is guaranteed, of course, is the best supporting actress statuette. Mo’Nique owns this movie, flat-out. Her lack of vanity shocks me; she shows something so ugly in this movie it’s appalling (and I don’t just mean her skintight floral unitard). Mary is mercurial and nuanced. I know I’ve groused before about what I’ve taken to calling the Mr. Darcy critique (that a performance must be serious before we can consider it good) but in this case you can really see why. There’s little more serious than the damage this woman inflicts on those in her orbit. The movie is about Precious, but mother Mary Jones moves the story much in the way Denzel Washington’s terrifying dirty cop does in Training Day. She’s a villain of the same monstrous, mesmerizing power; the movie works because she is a nightmare brought to life. And it works because she’s real, because we believe in her power to dominate, to lash out. Precious learns to act, and not merely to react to her mother. That’s the whole story and the film’s triumph.
Precious says of her teacher Ms. Rains that she’s was in a tunnel for a long time, with no light but herself. It’s people like that who can’t help shining on others once their own ordeal is over. Clearly the metaphor stands for Precious herself. The movie is not the for the faint of heart. I was terrified, and ultimately privileged, to watch her shine.