Alternately gruelling and over-egged, Lee Daniels’ film ultimately succeeds on the strength of the central cast’s performances rather than its director’s frequent clumsiness (apparently his latest, The Paperboy, has caused much unintentional hilarity due to his choices). Set in Harlem in the late ‘80s, it features Gabourey Sidibe as Precious, a withdrawn, obsese teenager pregnant with a second child by her own father (her first has Down’s Syndrome).
As good as Sidibe is in the title role, it’s Mo’Nique playing her abusive mother who gives the most astonishing performance. She’s fearless in portraying her character’s cruelty and damaged mind, a woman whose defining reaction to her boyfriend abusing their daughter was jealousy. The support from Paul Patton and Mariah Carey, as teacher and social worker respectively, is very much in the mold of sympathetic audience substitute (albeit the latter, as Precious notes, is out of her depth), reeling in shock from the horrors she has suffered. But there’s a sense of Hollywood casting that distracts from the realism Daniels appears to be aiming for; Lenny Kravitz’s turn as a nurse compounds this.
While the script is commendably stark in its matter-of-factness, it also tumbles into the didactic and obvious at times. Characters can sound over-written (for example Precious’ vocalisation of her situation towards the end) and scenes occasionally come across as contrived for maximum manipulative effect.
Daniels makes stylistic choices both good and bad in equal measure. Precious’ fantasy sequences are poorly conceived and realised; one gets the sense the device is contrived from other movies that have used it much more convincingly. Likewise, he employs editing devices such as jump cuts to invite us into her mental space but they are variably effective. Sometimes the handheld camera works, sometimes it feels forced, faux-verite. As compelling as the subject matter is, Daniels needed to exercise more restraint so as not to come off heavy-handed.