Americans are raised on hope.
It lies at the core of the country’s DNA, imbued within its founding documents and stitched tightly into its shared identity. Those of us who live here have been taught from the earliest of ages that our destinies are not shaped by caste or duty, but by talent, work, drive and desire. Even in the midst of misery, our lives often are predicated on hope—that our next job will be more fulfilling, that our next round of chemotherapy may do the trick, that the next sunrise will bring a brighter day.
And yet, there are places here where hope dares not go. There are places where life is but a biological fact, where liberty is laughable, where happiness is a pointless pursuit, best left to those in other neighborhoods, other situations.
Clareece Jones is 16. Sweet 16. People call her Precious. And she is.
But no one believes it.
She can’t read. She barely talks. She’s in junior high still—an oversized presence in the back row, a spectator in the heart of bedlam. At home, it’s worse. Far worse. Her father rapes her. Precious has given birth to one of his sons, and she’s pregnant with another. Her mother calls her fat, calls her stupid. She beats Precious, tells her she wishes she’d had an abortion, calls her "ugly black grease to be wiped away."
"Sometimes," Precious admits, "I wish I was dead."
And yet she lives. She perseveres through resignation and delusion. As her father rapes her, she imagines herself on a Hollywood red carpet, where she walks confidently, flashbulbs popping. When neighborhood thugs push her to the concrete, she drifts to a stage, where she’s joined in dance by a handsome beau.
They are the coping mechanisms of a tortured mind.
And then, one day, she sees a glimmer of … what? What is that unfamiliar sensation she feels, when she enters a new school, a new classroom filled with misfits on a quest for their GEDs? What goes through her mind when she picks up a piece of chalk and writes on the blackboard? When she speaks in class, her voice soft and jumbled with nerves and underuse? When her teacher talks with her as if she actually cared? How do you feel? her teacher asks. What do you feel?
"Here," Precious says. "It makes me feel here."
For a girl who typically longs to be anywhere but here, that word has another meaning:
Precious is no Pollyannaish protagonist—a princess-in-waiting needing only a fairy godmother or a pack of dwarfs to make her dreams come true. The issues she struggles with are far more horrific than cleaning fireplaces or serving tea to snobbish sisters. But when she glimpses that glimmer of hope, she finds a wellspring of strength that buoys her—and the film that’s about her. She’s determined to make the right choices for both herself and her children—even though she knows how difficult her path will be. She keeps attending school when her mother wishes she’d just give it up and go on welfare. She takes on the responsibility of motherhood with a somber joy—even though her children must be constant, aching reminders of her father’s repeated abuse.
While she seems at first somewhat indifferent to her firstborn—a little girl with Down syndrome named Mongo—she becomes an attentive, protective mother when her second child (Abdul) arrives in her tortured world. And the decisions she makes are made with those two children always in mind.
But Precious would’ve never gotten even this far had it not been for Ms. Blue Rain, an English teacher at the alternative school Each One Teach One. Ms. Rain coaxes Precious into class, forces her to read and expects her to write in her journal every day. When Precious flees her mother’s apartment (and nearly murderous malevolence), Ms. Rain spends the day calling shelters and halfway houses to find a place for Precious to stay. And, in the meantime, she invites the girl to live with her for a bit. She is, perhaps, the first person who ever showed Precious even a bit of kindness.
A few others subsequently show they care about Precious’ well-being: A nurse slips Precious $20 in a Christmas card. A social worker labors to learn the girl’s agonizing story. And her fellow classmates at the school become something like real friends, too. These assorted people are almost like breadcrumbs along a dark, dismal path, leading Precious—not home, but away from it and to a place of warmth and safety.
When Precious tells us, in narration mode, about a dismal day, she ends by saying, "But that’s why God, or whoever, makes new days."
After she leaves her mother’s apartment for good, Precious walks by a church mission and hears singing inside. She imagines she’s inside with the congregants, singing a spiritual, with a lit-up cross glowing behind her. We hear other brief mentions of church choirs and God.
The only times we see Precious’ father are when he is abusing her. And the film practically opens with him raping her while she’s strapped to a bed. Another similar scene comes later in the film. Neither scene will I describe too specifically. I will leave it at this: They are excruciating as much in their implications as their onscreen depictions.
We learn from Precious’ mother, Mary, that the abuse began about the time Precious was 3 years old. And some of the details of that first abuse are told.
While despising her daughter for "diverting" the sexual attention of her husband, Mary also sexually abuses Precious, it’s implied.
Ms. Rain lives with another woman, and Precious tells us that they must be "straight-up lesbians." We see the women swap an affectionate kiss. And Ms. Rain’s partner is shown in a clingy nightgown.
Precious has a crush on her math teacher and fantasizes about running away with him to the suburbs. Her classmates, at the hospital for a visit, recite an f-worded version of "Two little lovebirds sitting in a tree." One student crudely suggests another girl wants to be a man.
Precious wears cleavage-baring outfits during her fantasies. The camera doesn’t look away when she breast-feeds her son. We hear multiple references to sexual acts, fetishes and predilections, and there’s a short exchange about used tampons.
Precious’ mother hits her—or tries to hit her—with dishes, pans and a potted plant. After Mary drops Abdul on the floor and throws a glass vase at Precious, the pair engage in a pretty serious fight, where mother and daughter wrestle and throw each other against walls. Precious—carrying her baby—tumbles down the stairs after the fight. Then, while Precious checks to see if Abdul is all right, Mary tries to finish them off by dropping a TV on them. (The two barely roll out of the way as the set smashes into thousands of shards.)
The most violent clash between mother and daughter, however, takes place out of sight: Precious, after enduring a seemingly endless stream of verbal abuse, gently kicks something down the stairs toward her mother—an act that sends Mary into a rage. We see nothing of the fight after—but we hear, repeatedly, the sound of hands hitting flesh, and of weeping.
A neighborhood guy pushes Precious down in the street.
Angry at a boy for cussing out the teacher she has a crush on, Precious smashes his face into his desk. She fights with a girl in her new class after the other student calls her "fat." And after a particularly trying day she harshly pushes a small neighborhood girl away.
Crude or Profane Language
About 70 f-words and nearly 30 s-words. A truckload of other profanities and slurs include "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch" and "n-gger." God’s name is misused well over a dozen times; at least 10 times it’s paired with "d‑‑n."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Mary smokes, and she sometimes sends Precious out to get cigarettes. (If she doesn’t come back with them, Mary promptly beats her.) Ms. Rain and her companion drink some wine.
Other Negative Elements
The verbal abuse Precious endures is nearly as cutting as the physical. Every waking minute, it seems, Mary reminds Precious how unloved she is—how stupid, how fat, how ugly, how worthless she is.
Precious’ only experience with how "normal" people act is gathered from what she sees on television: Mary rarely leaves the apartment and never seems to turn off the TV. Beastly thing that it sometimes is, that flickering tube is the most alive, the most peaceful, the most loving thing in their woeful abode.
Before her first day at Each One Teach One, Precious steals a bucket of fried chicken, eats it all and then throws up in a trash can. She also steals her case file from a government welfare office. She breaks into the Each One Teach One office after running away from her mother.
Mary tells her daughter she should never trust whites. And there’s a great deal of backtalk to authority figures—teachers, principals, parents, etc.
For the space of nearly two hours, executive producers Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry are asking moviegoers to enter Precious’ dark world and witness inconceivable acts.
They know they are, on some level, abusing those who watch—so much so that it’s worth asking, Does director Lee Daniels go too far when he shows Precious’ father raping her? Do we see too much when her mother assaults her? Are we dragged too deeply into her pit of pain and despair? But the idea of confronting America with this particular sort of grueling tale supersedes that for Winfrey and Perry.
"It is so raw," Oprah has said. "It will suck the air out of the room at the end of the film, and that’s a good thing."
Precious is saved as her story concludes, but what Oprah is hinting at is this: Her story illuminates a far greater tragedy than her own. It is the awful fact that her story is not unique.
The world—indeed, this very country of ours—is in many places overwhelmed with pain and misery too horrible to speak of. Often we’ve purposefully sequestered ourselves from these places. We build comfortable suburbs, eat at mid-priced chain restaurants, spend time with kind, funny and oh-so-together friends. We live our lives, plowing through our occasional triumphs and tragedies, forgetting that sometimes, just blocks away, the streets themselves would scream for mercy if they could.
Precious forcefully—at times brutally—reminds us of these hard realities. And in that sense, this is a film that deeply convicts even as it unfolds the horror (and hope) of one desperate young woman.
"Love ain’t done nothing for me!" Precious cries. "Love beat me, raped me, called me an animal, made me sick!" No one loves her, she’s convinced of that. She is, in her own eyes, the most unlovable of creatures.
But Precious the film slowly, agonizingly, proves Precious the person wrong. Though overt spirituality is almost nonexistent, the final message resonates with something that is in absolute harmony with Christianity’s healing spring:
We all hurt. We all are loved. We all are Precious.