Movie Review: PRECIOUS

After seeing Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (limited opening, Nov. 6), I think the Academy should just hand over the Best Supporting Actress Oscar to Mo’Nique right now because that race is sewn up. Hers is one of the bravest, most blistering performances I’ve seen in years; it’s breathtaking in its monstrosity.


Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

Precious (Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe) is an undereducated teen living in Harlem with her abusive mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), who’s on welfare. Precious is also pregnant with her second child by her father (yes, you read that right). Kicked out of school, she gets sent to an alternative school, where a sympathetic teacher (Paula Patton) inspires her to read and write and reclaim her life.

You may be thinking you’ve seen this story before—youngster who has been written off by the system meets a tough-but-compassionate mentor who turns his/her life around—and you’d be right. But director Lee Daniels, working from a script by Geoffrey Fletcher, takes it to a whole ‘nother level of rawness and Mo’Nique, known primarily as a comedian, goes there with him.


Photo by Anne Marie Fox

The award season is just getting revved up in Hollywood and there are many more contenders I need to see, but I don’t know how anyone can top Mo’Nique’s portrayal of the mother who’s jealous of her own daughter for stealing her man. When she was on screen, I just sat there gaping, wondering where she pulled all that evil from. Mary is like all the scariest mother figures you’ve ever seen on screen rolled into one, with the level of cruelty taken to the 24th degree then multiplied by a thousand. Mo’Nique’s performance, however, is second to none and if Oscar voters don’t give her a statue, somebody’s throwing the competition.

Sidibe is no slouch, either. In her feature debut, she plays a child whose eyes are much older than her years, who’s uneducated but not stupid, who’s been beaten by life but refuses to stay down. When I saw her in person after the movie (see notes below), the vast difference between the actress and the character makes the performance even more impressive.


Photo courtesy Lionsgate

The supporting cast is also noteworthy—an unrecognizable Lenny Kravitz as a kind male nurse, Paula Patton (without noticeable makeup, she’s more beautiful here than I’ve ever seen her) as the teacher who goes beyond the call of duty to give Precious a chance at a better future, Xosha Roquemore as a classmate who provides much-needed levity, and the de-glammed Mariah Carey, who’s surprisingly good, playing her scenes as a social worker in a no-nonsense manner that doesn’t quite disguise the judgment in her eyes.

Daniels, Sidibe, Patton, Fletcher and producer Sarah Siegel-Magness did Q & A after the Variety screening I attended. Interesting tidbits gleaned:

  • Daniels said at first he “was looking for the truth” in his casting, auditioning over 400 girls for the title role, including kids he met on the street and in subway stations. He finally decided against casting an actress from a similar background because that “would have been exploiting the real Precious.”
  • Daniels found Sidibe in an open call. She’s a bright, articulate 26-year-old who cut a college class to audition.
  • As upsetting as the movie is, Daniels said the book is even tougher. If he had filmed the book as is, the movie “would’ve been X-rated.”
  • Carey had to learn to walk by fully using the bottom of her feet because she’s so used to “walking on her tippy toes” from wearing high heels. Daniels asked her to come stripped down and leave her entourage at home.
  • Fletcher at first wrote the script under a pseudonym since that’s what the author known as Sapphire did when she wrote the novel (Precious is loosely based on one of Sapphire’s former students). That idea was eventually abandoned. Fletcher then met Sapphire during a completely random encounter when he found himself sitting next to her on the subway. He recognized her, introduced himself and said he was adapting her book.
  • Sapphire is a scholar and poet who’s completely unimpressed by Hollywood. Daniels stalked her for nine years before she gave him the film rights.
  • Patton did this movie for her mother, a teacher with 35 years in the Los Angeles United School District.

Nerd verdict: Precious is a gem in the rough

19 responses to “Movie Review: PRECIOUS

  1. It never ceases to amaze and inspire me as to what the human spirit can suffer through and still be made stronger by. Thanks for the review and behind-the-scenes notes, PCN ~ as always!

    • Pop Culture Nerd

      I’m a find-the-silver-lining sort of person but Precious’s situation got me beat—I just couldn’t find any. But she could. And that is inspiring.

  2. This is on my must-see list, especially after reading your review.

  3. Thanks, PCN, for the review and the intel behind the film. I found the trailer for this to be an uncomfortable sneak view. I may not get upset by horror novels/movies, but material that shines a light on real situations/human cruelty does get to me (see “Boys Don’t Cry”). I’m going to have to steel myself to take this in. Thanks for this.

    • Pop Culture Nerd

      Boys Don’t Cry messed me up but I had the same reaction to Hilary Swank’s performance as I had to Mo’Nique’s. I saw Boys in July and said to my husband afterward, “I don’t care what comes out later in the year, the Academy should just put Hilary Swank’s name on a statue and ship it to her right now. No one’s gonna beat that.” It’s rare I react so strongly and exciting when something makes me feel that way.

  4. Heard about this movie. Heard it was really heart wrenching. Kinda don’t want to see it, but I didn’t want to see Frozen River last year either and that would have been a mistake. Hope the academy gives the movie its due.

    • Pop Culture Nerd

      I think it’ll get nominations for director, best supporting actress, picture and screenplay at the very least.

  5. Didn’t this win at Sundance? From what you wrote and the buzz I’m hearing, Mo’Nique is the person to beat for the oscar this year.

    • Pop Culture Nerd

      Yes, it won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award (a rare occurrence) and a Special Jury Prize for Mo’Nique.

  6. When I saw this preview in theaters for the first time I thought, WOW…now there is a story! It’s not a story for all the good reasons we think of when we hear the word….it’s a story because it could/did truly happen and to see someone good come out of all that, is a miracle in and of itself. Thanks for the review! (great job!)

    • Pop Culture Nerd

      Thanks, GMR. It is inspiring but the filmmakers said the story is fiction. Sapphire loosely based the character on a former student of hers.

  7. After seeing an advance screening of Daniels’ “Precious” two weeks ago, I am still moved. By far, the most outstanding performance is Mo’Nique as Mary, Precious’ mother. From her utterance of her first insult to Precious, the audience knows that comedian Mo’Nique has been inhabited by a actress of Meryl Streep caliber. Monique’s delivery of Mary is so thoroughly convincing that it is an injustice to call her execution a performance. I’d warn viewer that the movie is difficult to finish. On several occasions, I considered walking out. The cinematic tragedy of Precious’ life both beautiful and suffocating.

    – James Guilford

    • Pop Culture Nerd

      Hi James, your comment is a perfect review of the movie. I haven’t been able to stop talking about it, either. The subject matter is so disturbing but the talent on display is incredibly inspiring.

  8. I had already heard about the movie and was curious about it.
    Now that I have watched the trailer and read your brilliant review and Q&A selection (thank you!!), I just can’t wait to see it! (Yet I will have to, the film will be released here in March 2010!)
    Of course, I will have to forget that Mariah Carey is starring in it (although I must admit she looks ok, you’re right!)! 😉
    By the way, how is the other singer Lenny Kravitz, does he do well? (This one I like better!)
    As for Mo’nique, she is totally unknown in France, but she seems to give an exceptionnal performance actually! Wow!
    PCN, I trust your Swank-proven intuition on her getting the Oscar! 😉

    • Pop Culture Nerd

      Lenny did a nice job. I didn’t recognize him without his famous hair (he wears a knit cap the whole time) so I kept thinking, “Who is this fine male nurse?!”

      I’m just gonna keep saying it until it comes true—the Academy needs to hand over that Oscar to Mo’Nique.

  9. I have long given up hope with the Oscar selections these past few years.To me they select the unknown who they want to support,and use the same reason for leaving out others.An example in 2007 Adam Beach in Flags Of Our Fathers,a brilliant acting as Ira Hayes ,no nom.In 2008 James McAvoy in Atonement, no nom.The reason they said, they were not well known actors.Let’s see who the favored unknown would be this year.

  10. I’ll skip this movie Popculturenerd, a little too Color Purple for me.I’m just going to support Last Station and hope for the best come Oscar time for MCAvoy.Nobody is ever going to convince me that back in 2007 Eddie Murphy deserved that nom over Beach in Flags or even McAvoy in Last King.

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