"Every day I tell myself something's going to happen," the eponymous heroine thinks early on in Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. "I'm going to break through, or someone is going to break through to me." To say that she eventually gets her wish - sort of - doesn't spoil a thing: This bruising, harrowing movie would be impossible to sit through without at least a hint of light at the end of its astonishingly dark tunnel.
Director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher don't just want to show you the sad lot of Precious (played by terrific newcomer Gabourey Sibide). They also want to make you feel her day-to-day misery, whether it's the sexual abuse of her father (as the movie opens, she's pregnant with his second child; the first was born with Down Syndrome), the physical and emotional abuse of her monstrous mother (comedian Mo'Nique, in a revelatory performance of evil personified); her low self-esteem (she's obese and, looking in the mirror, imagines a pretty, thin white girl staring back) or her illiteracy, which she keeps from her classmates.
Set in Harlem in 1987 (which seems a century before the area's ethnic assimilation, a time when the idea of an African-American president would have been risible), Precious stacks the deck so high against its protagonist that in almost any other movie, she would come off as a helpless victim. But for all her pain and suffering, Precious is alive and imaginative and resourceful (she fantasizes about being famous and glamorous, and she imagines running off with her math teacher and living happily in the suburbs). The question hanging over the movie is whether the girl will ever get a chance to set free the spirit within her: Pain and hopelessness have a way of dousing even the most innocent ambition.
The plot, which at times feels like a fairy tale with no imaginable happy ending, follows what happens after Precious connects with a teacher (Paula Patton) at an alternative school who understands the formidable hurdles that must be overcome before the girl can even think of things like learning to read, and a social worker (an unrecognizable Mariah Carey) who gradually grasps the severity of her situation.
Daniels, whose previous film, Shadowboxer, sailed so cheerfully over the top that sometimes you couldn't believe what you were seeing, is not timid about putting the audience - and his characters - through the wringer. His direction at times edges into the heavy handed, but the movie is not timid about wanting to induce a reaction. Sequences centering on the girl's time at home alone with her mother induce gasps, because they ring so true, even though you can't imagine a parent who would behave so vilely toward her daughter.
Near the end of the film, Mo'Nique makes the best of a monologue, guaranteed to bring her a Best Supporting Actress nomination, in which her character reveals a glimpse of humanity that, while not redemptive (this character is unredeemable), speaks to the story's central theme. Precious' mother gave up on life long ago, and her seething, voracious anger is a result of her weakness. Despite all the insurmountable obstacles in her way, and despite countless motivations to give up, her daughter refuses to do so. That hope - in the movie, as in life - makes all the difference.