‘My name’s Clarissa Precious Jones… and I want to be on the cover of a magazine,’ says Sidibe. What she gets is less glitzy: we learn of the gross difference between the refuge of her mind and the reality of her life. When her vile mother (Mo’Nique, grotesque, chilling but in the end almost sympathetic) screams, ‘I should have aborted your motherfuckin’ ass,’ Precious imagines herself walking the red carpet at a film premiere. Perhaps most movingly, when she looks in the mirror, she sees a girl who is more beautiful and more white.
So, a better life is possible, but imagination just isn’t enough: ‘Precious’ is a film about real escape, not dreams. The film celebrates a winning combination of individual strength, education and community over the warped logic of the sort of corrupt household where a loveless grandma puts on a wig and feigns love for a Down’s syndrome child, a piece of theatre to secure a cheque from a visiting social worker. It’s a film that acknowledges poverty and inequality while refusing to believe that people can’t escape from their grip. It’s a truly American movie. Its realism is social – not socialist – and its happy flights of imagination recall the magical side of Danny Boyle more than the grit of Ken Loach.
Slowly, surely, Precious attends a special school with an inspirational teacher (Paula Patton), begins sessions with a social worker (Mariah Carey, unobtrusive) and fights her silent, violent and self-loathing tendencies to make new friends, a colourful bunch of girls in her class, from a mouthy Jamaican immigrant to a tough nut from The Bronx. It’s not an easy battle and Daniels has a tendency to land new blows when you think the fight is over. So oppressive and extreme is Precious’s background that you imagine terrible things are about to happen even when they’re not. I didn’t find the film as actively upsetting as many have reported – merely very, very sad.
The film arrives here after winning prizes at Toronto and Sundance and gaining four Bafta nominations. So, should you believe the hype? Yes and no. ‘Precious’ is very affecting and has some great performances, especially from Sidibe and Mo’Nique, but the film is arguably more heart than art. Is that such a bad thing? Perhaps not: when a film shines a light on a desperate way of life and gives dignity to characters barely ever portrayed on screen, you can forgive some clumsy, emphatic storytelling and a narrative that’s too episodic and reliant on voiceover. It’s a film full of life and love, well-meaning and, judging by the reaction in the US, a genuine and important phenomenon that says act – don’t dwell – on your dreams. A genuine Obama-era movie, then.