Review: Mo’Nique is Precious … the rest of us are OK too.

Where I wanted to be one of the many voices applauding Precious as an inspirational triumph, I was admittedly underwhelmed by a film that, while punctuated by moments of excruciating truth — most of them via Mo’Nique’s masterful portrayal of Mary, Precious’ mother — seemed to depend much too heavily on directorial gimmicks and hinged on a screenplay that simply couldn’t decide what story to tell. My biggest gripe was that director Lee Daniels, having been blessed with such a broad range of extraordinary talent, did not give his ensemble more opportunity to strut their stuff. The film shines brightest at those moments that are left spare and honest — a twitchy camera on Mariah Carey’s deadpan Mrs. Weiss spinning in her office chair, Mary’s explosive monologue about ‘real women’ hurled up at Precious from the bottom of a staircase, and the flirtatious bantering of Precious’ classmates speak volumes more than the near-psychedelic shifts in lighting and visual effects that Daniels seems intent on proving he knows how to use. The result is a weighty combination of fantasy sequences and narration drowning out key scenes that should have belonged solely to the actors.

While the ensemble as a whole has very deservedly wracked up numerous accolades for their work, Mo’Nique is the true star of this film, bringing to her performance of Mary a degree of truth and complexity that is both startling and compelling. As an audience we loathe, fear and pity Mary; nevertheless, in spite of her seemingly boundless capacity for cruelty, we still harbor some vague sense of hope — as Precious certainly must — that at some point a glimmer of compassion might break through and the other woman hidden in Mary, the one who might have stood up to an abusive partner and made something of her life, will somehow manage to emerge. No chance, of course — Mary is a woman broken beyond repair, it seems — and yet Mo’Nique gives us just enough hints to keep us hoping. Mary is the one character who, if mishandled, could’ve truly sunk this film; one false move could’ve brought us spiraling into the mystical world of Reagan-era stereotypes. Mo’Nique takes her risks with purpose and boldness, and the result is a devastatingly unsentimental performance each moment that she is on screen.

While far from a ‘con job‘, Precious suffers from a desire to please, manipulating realism into something that can be marketed as ‘soaring’ and ‘inspirational’. Watching the film, I had the impression that the cast were far better equipped to deal with the topics of sexual abuse, AIDS, poverty and education than Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher were ready to give them credit for (Precious’ unconvincing exit line ‘You can’t handle this’ following Mary’s final monologue seemed more like an exhausted screenwriter admitting defeat in the face of such raw talent). The result is a film that is patchy, unevenly paced, and ultimately unclear as to what story it aims to tell. Is it a film about the power of writing, of telling one’s story? Is it a film about a young woman who learns to take pride in who she is? Is it a film about survival, about redemption? Is it a satire on the welfare system? A satire on Black women and beauty image? Is it another one of those classroom dramas about teachers who work miracles when the state and federal government fail? Precious tries a little too hard to be all of the above, and consequently achieves none with any degree of persuasion. Overall, the only real triumph is an ensemble of actors whose commitment to their subject matter and to one another manage to bind together a fragile script that would have otherwise drowned in top-heavy narration and misplaced visual effects.