"Precious" unsparing and hard to shake off

Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire (2009) 
110 min., rated R.
Grade: A -

Despite the rather unwieldy title, "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" is unsparing, harsh, and genuinely gut-wrenching. The morbidly obese, illiterate 16-year-old African American girl from Harlem named Clareece “Precious” Jones is moody and damaged, and for good reason: she's been molested by her skeezy father, pregnant with two of his children, treated cruelly at home by her layabout mother (Mo'Nique), and to top it all off, she's HIV-positive. Newcomer Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe towers with her powerful and courageous performance as a withdrawn shell of a human being overcoming her downtrodden, abusive homelife. 

Screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher doesn't whitewash the miseries of Saphire's 1996 novel, nor is it just one hard knock after another, but it's alternately upsetting and uplifting. Although it's not always even in a technical sense, Lee Daniels has directed his film with vérité realism, some wit, and experimental style. Painful in Precious' miseries and triumphant in her fantasies, "Precious" is heartbreaking but hopefully told with raw honesty, emotions, and a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. It's pretty melodramatic, where the good characters are saintly and the bad characters are one-dimensionally irredeemable, but it's free of heavy-handedness and sentimentality, even if it's executive produced by Tyler Perry and a name-dropped Oprah Winfrey. 

The biggest surprise is caricatured comedian Mo'Nique, who turns in an ever-believable, shattering, ferociously intense performance as Precious's abusive, despicable monster of a mother, Mary; her final key scene shows this pathetic character full-through. An almost unrecognizable Mariah Carey (a big improvement from "Glitter") and Lenny Kravitz do engaging work as a deadpan social worker and a sympathetic male nurse, respectively, as does Paula Patton as Precious' understanding teacher Ms. Rain at an alternative school. 

Though the film is not an easy watch, it's not meant to be and well worth it, ending on a bravely realistic "happy" note. Even if it had nothing else to offer than Sidibe's sympathetic powerhouse performance, "Precious" is something special and hard to shake off.