The old white folks in the matinee screening I attended of Precious booed and hissed at Mo'Nique, playing Precious's mother Mary, as if she were an old-fashioned mustache-twirling villain. And she is certainly a terrifying, even despicable person who physically abuses her pregnant (by the husband/father, for the second time), overweight, illiterate, 16 year old daughter Precious. But I suspect a different kind of (less white) audience would understand that Mary, as much as Precious, is also a victim in the sense that she's absorbed the dominant society's messages for so long that she's practically become the thing she's always been told she was: basically a savage who thinks of nothing but the basic pleasures of food and sex (and television). Precious too has absorbed these messages, but she deals with them differently: basically by retreating into her mind and escaping the worst of her abuses through a fantasy world in which she takes center stage (literally). This is a world that her environment and the media has never revealed to her (watch for the scene where she watches an old film on television: though she's able to superimpose her and her mother's faces on the white actors, what she sees is simply a more civilized version of the same cycle of abuse she's locked into).
Yet the film, bleak as it, is ultimately about Precious's attempts to escape her circumstances, through the help of a few good teachers and counselors. We see, in several scenes early on, that she's always had a spark of defiance. In one of these moments (which has sparked some controversy) Precious orders and steals and eats an entire bucket of chicken. Now director Lee Daniels certainly knows he's treading on thin ice here with the old "black folks eating chicken" stereotype, but the point seems to be that Precious, even in her despair, is already finding ways to empower herself by, in a sense, both consciously playing--and even enjoying--the role she's expected to play. I suppose the film follows a somewhat traditional, learning-equals-power, formula as it progresses, but it rarely feels overly manipulative and never sugar-coated (the confrontations between Precious and Mary are intense and brutal). In a strangely meta moment late in the film, we see one of Precious's fellow students trying to interpret what it means when a protagonist's environment in a novel is described as "unrelenting." The student, not at all sure and not offering the expected answer, says something along the lines of this meaning that the protagonist keeps on moving along and moving along. We're not sure where Precious is headed, exactly, in the final moments of the film, but she is in motion, and we're meant to see that as both hope and progress.