Precious (15)

There’s something creepy about this tear-jerker

Stories situated below a certain economic threshold seem to cry out for juddering cameras and natural lighting, so it's refreshing when a corrective comes along. Michael Winterbottom's Wonderland (1999) was a kitchen-sink drama lifted to the rafters by a soaring Michael Nyman score; La haine (1995) lent Paris street punks a pop-promo gloss. And while there is much about Lee Daniels's Precious that is dubious - even exploitative - it, too, proves that austerity need not be the default setting for tales of hardship.

At its best, Daniels's approach manifests itself as a defiant campness. Take the shot of illiterate, 16-year-old Claireece "Precious" Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), built like a quarterback with shoulder pads, plodding through Harlem after being suspended from school. Precious is pregnant with her father's child. Again. But the music accompanying her journey is not "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now"; it's "Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?". It is a joyful moment, an invitation for us to laugh, but the joke isn't on Precious - it's on a world that would designate her ineligible for dreamboat status.

Precious has had inadequacy drummed into her from birth. The street-corner louts who shove her to the ground seem like good Samaritans compared to her mother, Mary (played by Mo'Nique). Mary only pauses during her stream of invective to throw blunt objects at her daughter's head, and sometimes not even then. We do not have the pleasure of meeting Precious's father. In his absence, Mary gets both the privilege of seeming more human than this off-screen villain, and the burden of being presented as much the greater monster. Mary's
response to her daughter's second pregnancy is to treat Precious as a rival in love. "Just 'cause he gave you more children than he gave me," she spits, "you think you're something special!"

Mo'Nique contributes such a boisterously operatic portrayal of motherhood at its most depleted that it seems likely the aggressor will commit a further slight against her victim by stealing the film that bears her name. Fortunately, Sidibe has charisma enough to make this an equal match, for actors if not characters.

What lets the film down is Daniels's immaturity. Time and again, emotional showdowns are rendered comic by his inexperience. When Mary and Precious give it the full WWF, demolishing their living room in the process, he shoots the conflict with a kitsch glee that suggests he's remaking What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. Sometimes a jarring detail will capsize everything. When Mary lands a direct hit on Precious with a potted plant, you have to wonder where it came from. This is not a nurturing household, and these welfare claimants don't have a cent to spare for such luxuries.

I don't doubt that Daniels believes young Precious to be a dream walking. It's just that he exhibits an indecorous relish when depicting her hellish existence. (The film may be faithful to a fault - Sapphire's novel Push, on which Precious is based, faced similar accusations.) His gravest errors are epitomised by a flashback to Precious being raped by her father, a scene that plays like a misery memoir adapted by Ken Russell, complete with squeaking bed-springs and sweaty close-ups. Daniels wants to make us squirm with disgust. Sure enough, he does: we're disgusted at the sleaziness behind the camera, as well as in front of it.

But Precious can't be easily dismissed. It's fascinating, for example, that men in the film are excluded from all decision-making or positions of influence. It is women who represent freedom and potential. A female principal steers Precious towards an "alternative educational programme" where a lesbian teacher (Paula Patton) becomes her saviour. Mariah Carey pops up as a social worker, in one of those performances usually described as "brave". What that really means is that she doesn't wear make-up, she hasn't brushed her hair, and she refrains from wheeling out that five-octave range.

In fact, Carey is tart and unfussy. And, with the appearance of Lenny Kravitz, too, playing a nurse - who, significantly in this testosterone-free landscape, is mocked for occupying a "female" position - the film doubles as a rehabilitation scheme for risible pop stars. I wouldn't be surprised if Daniels is being inundated at this moment with pestering phone calls and expensive gifts from MC Hammer.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 01 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Unforgiven