The year’s scariest cinematic villain isn’t an axe-wielding serial killer offing sexualized teens in a blood-slick slasher flick. It’s Mary Lee Johnston. As played by the comedian-actress Mo’Nique, she’s the maternal monster that haunts “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push” by Sapphire.”
Mo’Nique plays the mother of the titular character Precious, a teen girl who is about to give birth to her second baby by her abusive father. But her mother’s transgressions are just as horrifying — from the psychological to the physical, whether berating Precious about having a school official show up at their tenement doorstep (in Harlem circa 1987) to assailing her with flying household items. Her verbal assaults are so over the top they elicited uncomfortable laughs in the audience.
We come to learn that Mom resents Precious for “stealing” her man, since her husband decided to give Precious more children than he gave her. Her insecurities and rage come out as both confession and confrontation, an explanation and indictment against her daughter. And Mo’Nique, making the transition from low-brow comedian to serious dramatic actress, turns her character into a terrifying yet somehow piteous force of nature.
Like Dr. Hannibal Lecter in the 1991 movie version of “The Silence of the Lambs,” her character appears for only a short time in the movie, but her impact is felt throughout. Like Anthony Hopkins in that movie, Mo’Nique makes the most of her short screen time — and similarly is winning honors. In fact, as we move further into awards season, she’s dominating supporting actress trophies across the country, taking home critics’ prizes from San Francisco to Boston.
This week, Mo’Nique was nominated for a Golden Globe award along with the movie and co-star Gabourey Sidibe, who plays Precious and was nominated for best actress in a drama. The film, directed by Lee Daniels, started its remarkable journey early in the year at the Sundance Film Festival and later earned the support of Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry.
Despite the clunky title, “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push” by Sapphire” is a must-see on your holiday movie list. Though I was inspired by the lead character and her struggle to rise up from destitution and despair, it’s Mo’Nique’s terrifying presence I remember most. She’s like a ghetto Mother Dearest, and she’s more terrifying than anything a rote “Saw” sequel can throw our way.