Claireece Jones, the Harlem teenager at the center of “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” lives in a world of specific and overwhelming horror. She goes by her middle name, Precious, which seems like a cruel taunt, since nearly everyone around her thinks she’s worthless and lets her know it.
Precious’s mother, Mary, played with operatic fervor by the comedian Mo’Nique, dispenses a daily ration of humiliation and abuse. The constant verbal and physical violence she directs at her daughter would be shocking even without the monstrous crime that hangs over their dim, dirty apartment like a cloud. Precious, overweight and illiterate — and played by an extraordinarily poised first-time actress named Gabourey Sidibe — has a young daughter and is pregnant for a second time. The father in both cases, who is nowhere to be seen, is Precious’s father too.
This information is bluntly presented at the beginning of Sapphire’s 1996 novel, a first-person narrative composed in rough, stylized dialect. In Lee Daniels’s risky, remarkable film adaptation, written by Geoffrey Fletcher, the facts of Precious’s life are also laid out with unsparing force (though not in overly graphic detail). But just as “Push” achieves an eloquence that makes it far more than a fictional diary of extreme dysfunction, so too does “Precious” avoid the traps of well-meaning, preachy lower-depths realism. It howls and stammers, but it also sings.
Mr. Daniels, directing his second feature (after the vivid and eccentric “Shadowboxer”), is not afraid to mix styles and genres. In his determination to do justice to Claireece’s inner life, as well as to her circumstances, he allows splashes of fantasy, daubs of humor and floods of unabashed melodrama into the drab landscape of her struggle. Ugliness is all around her, but beauty is there too.
There is something almost reckless about this filmmaker’s eclecticism, which extends from the casting — pop stars and television personalities alongside trained and untrained actors — to the visual textures and the soundtrack music. “Precious” is a hybrid, a mash-up that might have been ungainly, but that manages to be graceful instead. It’s partly a bootstrap drama of resilience and redemption, complete with a hardworking teacher (Paula Patton) wrangling a classroom full of disadvantaged girls. It’s also the nearly Gothic story of a child tormented by the cruelty of adults, as lurid as a Victorian potboiler or a modern-day tell-all memoir.
Above all “Precious” is unabashedly populist in its potent emotional appeal — not for nothing did Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey sign on as executive producers around the time of the film’s debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January — and at the same time determined to challenge its audience’s complacency as only a genuine work of art can.
Mary, brimming with rage, thwarted love and plain meanness, is a character bound to provoke discomfort. Even otherwise misogynistic hip-hop artists will pay tribute to the heroism of African-American mothers, and to see that piety so thoroughly dispensed with is downright shocking.
Other provocations are more subtle but no less pointed. There are virtually no men in this movie. Precious’s father is glimpsed briefly in flashbacks of his assaults on her, and in the fantasy sequences that provide escape from her pain Precious hobnobs with handsome boys, but otherwise the only male character of significance is a hospital worker played by Lenny Kravitz. Otherwise, Precious’s cosmos, for better and for worse, is a universe of women: the social worker (Mariah Carey, scrubbed of any vestige of divahood); the teacher, Ms. Rain; her co-worker in the remedial education program, played by the comedian and talk show host Sherri Shepherd; and Precious’s fellow students.
These characters all can be seen as surrogate mothers, aunts and sisters, who together provide Precious with a more functional family (to say the least) than what she has at home. But their love is also enabled by institutions and government policies. An unstated but self-evident moral of “Precious,” set during Ronald Reagan’s presidency and based on a book published in the year of Bill Clinton’s welfare reform, is that government can provide not only a safety net, but also, in small and consequential ways, a lifeline.
I will leave it for others to parse the truth or the timeliness of this message. But “Precious” is, in any case, less the examination of a social problem than the illumination of an individual’s painful and partial self-realization. Inarticulate and emotionally shut down, her massive body at once a prison and a hiding place, Precious is also perceptive and shrewd, possessed of talents visible only to those who bother to look. At its plainest and most persuasive, her story is that of a writer discovering a voice. “These people talked like TV stations I didn’t even watch,” she remarks of Ms. Rain and her lover (Kimberly Russell), displaying her awakening literary intelligence even as she marvels at the discovery of her ignorance.
And Ms. Sidibe, perhaps the least-known member of this movie’s unusual cast, is also the glue that holds it together. Nimble and self-assured as Mr. Daniels’s direction may be, he could not make you believe in “Precious” unless you were able to believe in Precious herself. You will.