— As we head into Oscar season, “Precious” is the kind of movie that’s going to draw praise from many quarters while forming the basis for a lot of political and sociological arguments.
Conservatives will no doubt use the film to complain about the welfare state, feminists will debate whether or not the lead characters have a victim mentality, and already one legendarily argumentative African-American film critic has accused the film’s black director, Lee Daniels, of casting light-skinned actresses in sympathetic roles while casting the villains with darker-complected performers.
Once all is said and done, however, there’s still the movie itself to be considered, and while “Precious” isn’t perfect, it’s a moving drama that gives veteran performer Mo’Nique and first-timer Gabourey Sidibe the opportunity to create indelibly-etched characterizations.
Teenager Precious Jones (Sidibe) spends a lot of time fantasizing about being a model or singer or movie star, and who can blame her — in real life, she’s a physically and sexually-abused girl who has given birth to one child and is pregnant with another, both the product of incestuous rape. Her mother Mary (Mo’Nique) constantly belittles her, throws things at her and commits various other stripes of child abuse.
Expelled from her old school for being pregnant, Precious is sent to an alternative school where she meets kind and dedicated teacher Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), who helps the illiterate girl learn to read and write. Over the course of her education, Precious learns to value herself and her children, and while life never stops throwing hardships her way, she at least moves ever closer to blossoming into her own person.
Those fantasies that distract Precious from the horrors of her daily life come as something of a consolation for the audience as well; Daniels implies and hints at a lot of misery and degradation without jamming our faces in it, which ends up being far more effective than the “let me show you female suffering IN EXTREME CLOSE-UP” style of Lars von Trier (“Antichrist”).
Daniels’ direction isn’t always effective, admittedly — right after a scene in which it’s established that Precious can barely read or write, we get a dream sequence set inside an Italian neo-realist movie, complete with subtitles. (And are we to believe that ignorant Mary, whose all-day TV diet seems to consist mostly of “227” and “The $100,000 Pyramid,” would actually be watching Sophia Loren in “Two Women”?) There’s also some business about a lost notebook that feels like an unpursued plot thread, and Precious’ classmates at the alternative school are such a collection of types they’re like a platoon from an old WWII movie.
But as Pauline Kael famously noted about another abused-woman melodrama, the classic Bette Davis tear-jerker “Now, Voyager,” “If it were better, it might not work at all.” Giving this material (Geoffrey Fletcher adapted Sapphire’s novel “Push”) any kind of sheen would have turned it into an R-rated Lifetime movie. It’s the film’s very scruffiness that keeps it from being a shallow weepie.
Ultimately, though, it’s really about the intensity of Sibide and Mo’Nique, although supporting players Patton and an unrecognizable Mariah Carey (her powerful performance as a social worker officially absolves her for “Glitter”) certainly have an impact as well. Make whatever hay you want out of what this film does or doesn’t say about the black experience or living in poverty or the cycle of familial abuse, but there’s no denying the searing performances that Daniels has elicited from his fine cast.
Follow msnbc.com Movie Critic Alonso Duralde at http://www.twitter.com/MSNBCalonso.