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There’s no simpler formula in movies than that of the “feel-good” movie. All you have to do is make the audience feel bad, usually by showing them something distressing, depressing, and/or horrible, and then take it away. Unskilled filmmakers too often seek to achieve their effect by making the feel-bad part as awful as you can endure—or worse. So I admit I was not looking forward to seeing Precious, based on a novel about an abused Harlem teenager who finds salvation in education. I happen to have seen director Lee Daniels’ only previous film, Shadowboxer, a ridiculously lurid action drama about an incestuous mother-and-son team of assassins. And consider the subject material here: the story of Clareece “Precious” Jones, an illiterate, morbidly obese girl, pregnant for the second time by her own father, treated even worse (you don’t want the details) by her own mother who nevertheless keeps her around for the added welfare payments.

The first 15 minutes of Precious are indeed hard to take, but thankfully Daniels and scriptwriter Geoffrey Fletcher have frontloaded most of the grim details. (They’ve also removed some of the nastier details.) Unlike The Color Purple, the acknowledged (and rather obvious) model for Sapphire’s novel, the film quickly moves Precious into an alternative school where she is given a chance to break out of a life that is heading nowhere fast. The movie is not free of clichés—the light-skinned, angelic teacher with the silly name Blu Rain (Paula Patton) is one that grates on a lot of internet posters—but it sidesteps more than it tumbles into. (Given that the story takes place in 1987, a lot of filmmakers would have depicted Harlem as urban hell.) The classroom scenes are restrained and build a genuine sense of community among the half-dozen or so girls. There is a consistently high level of acting, headed by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe as Precious and including Mariah Carey as a social welfare caseworker. The one who really burns up the screen is comedienne Mo’Nique, as Precious’ abusive mother. For most of the film she is so committed to extracting every bit of nastiness from the character that you dread her reappearance. But she gets a revelatory monologue at the end which, while hardly excusing her, humanizes the character. It’s a moment that puts the film off-balance, sending us out of the theater thinking about the wrong character. Missteps like that and at least one melodramatic twist too many keep this from being as good as it might have, though if you can get past that first reel it’s still a film worth seeing.

m. faust

Watch the trailer for Precious

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