If you've been waiting for the equating of rape, heavy object-hurling abuse, and the corrosive bubbling of frying grease, then Lee Daniels' Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire is the film for you. Quick cuts of the aforementioned constitute the horrific flashbacks of Clareece "Precious" Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), a 300-plus-pound illiterate Harlem girl pregnant with her father's child—for the second time—who daydreams of flashbulbs and feather boas and fantasizes about seeing a petite white girl in the mirror. Precious also daily endures a stream of abuses, physical and verbal, from her mother, Mary (Mo'Nique), protective only of her welfare diet of cigarettes and The $100,000 Pyramid (the film is set in the late 1980s). In one scene Mary furiously masturbates in her bedroom while her desperate daughter goes hungry downstairs, forcing Precious to go out and steal a bucket of fried chicken, which she later throws up.
Subtlety isn't Daniels' thing. Never has been. His directorial debut, 2006's Shadowboxer, a neo-noir structured around you've-never-seen-this-at-the-multiplex provocations—most notably interracial December-May quasi-incest accompanied by squishy noises—felt less like a tentative first time out than a full-on disasterpiece de resistance. The lurid miseries of Precious begin to lift slowly, though, at least for a while. Precious, kicked out of school, enrolls in an alternative program. The dedicated teacher there, Blu Rain (Paula Patton), promises to promote literacy through tough love and journaling. She also warns that some won't make it through the class, but by the end of the film it looks like they're all still there.
It's hard to remain completely unmoved by this 16-year-old girl's gaining of self-respect, or unimpressed by the film's performances, especially Mo'Nique's as the monstrous Mary, which is showy but nonetheless fits the film's raw schmaltz register. Daniels, though, can't seem to stop tipping off his directorial presence—and not only by overplaying the shocks. Throwaway details, like the one-off meta moment when Ms. Rain asks her students what it means to describe a protagonist's circumstances as unrelenting, distract from the gritty melodrama, as do conspicuously dressed-down chart toppers fronting for large city institutions (Mariah Carey as a social worker, Lenny Kravitz as a nurse). Since it premiered at Sundance in January, Precious has garnered hosannas and poverty-tourism dismissals, neither of which it really deserves. It's something altogether more mediocre: a film that succeeds in galvanizing, but doesn't commit to much else.