Harrowing plot, heroic performances

"Precious" stars Gabourey Sidibe in the title role, an obese, brutalized, illiterate teen who learns, with help, to read and write and reconnect.

Admit it. At least once on the bus, you've recoiled from another passenger. Maybe it was the waxy skin or the vacant expression or the inarticulate voice. You just didn't want to know from her. Or maybe you thought you knew all there was to know.

Precious is such a girl. She is 16, morbidly obese, and illiterate. She won't look you in the eyes because she can't bear to see you avert them. She doesn't have the words to communicate that how she looks isn't who she is. And even if she did, she would be unintelligible. They taunt her at school, but that's a step up from how they brutalize her at home.

Harrowing and marked by heroic performances, Lee Daniels' Precious looks squarely in the wounded eyes of its title character and sees a girl with poetry in her. Poetry, and also a fetus conceived in rape by her father. (Don't ask where her mother was, because you're not going to like the answer: beating up on baby girl for stealing Momma's man.)

The producer of Monster's Ball and director of Shadowboxer, Daniels gravitates to scenarios with characters who are in a very dark place and move incrementally toward the light. In Sapphire's novel, Push, set in 1987, he found a character in the darkest place imaginable, chained to abusive parents and lacking the key to free herself.

Dramatically, Daniels' films are akin to sensitivity-training setups that encourage viewers to walk a mile in another's shoes. His movies are hopeful insofar as they deliver their characters from excruciating mental agony to ordinary misery.

In other words, you go to a Daniels movie not to be entertained, but edified. While not everyone goes to the movies for self-improvement, you will leave this one having witnessed phenomenal acting.

As Precious, caged by ignorance and liberated by empathy, Gabourey Sidibe takes the audience from dehumanization to purpose. If the film is inspirational, it's because we see her emotional detachment jolted by the power surge of human connection.

In any drama, a hero is only as compelling as the villain and, man, does Precious ever have one in Mo'Nique (the comedian), unsmiling as Mary, Precious' mother. In their Harlem apartment painted in hues of grease smoke, when not stewing in her own toxic juices, Mary repeatedly violates Precious. Verbally. Physically. Sexually.

Mo'Nique's performance is unnerving and pungent. Mary has no visible maternal feelings for Precious, viewing her daughter primarily as the messenger of welfare checks, preparer of food, and receiving end for aggression.

It is not hard to see how Precious came to her benumbed state. Still, it is hard to watch. Sullen, pitiless, and opportunistic, Mary views Precious' pregnancy as a shot at a bigger welfare check.

The pregnancy, her second, gets Precious expelled from ninth grade. The pregnancy is also instrumental in Precious' finding her voice, her life, and love for children. Because it leads to a steadfast teacher and a stalwart social worker entering Precious' life, teenage pregnancy turns out to be a good thing.

At the alternative school, Each One Teach One, Precious enrolls in the class of Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), the Fairy Godmother who gets the urban Cinderella up from domestic slavery by teaching her to read and write, the keys to freedom.

But it is a social worker, Ms. Weiss (Mariah Carey, careworn and almost unrecognizable), who facilitates the film's emotional catharsis. By making Mary face Precious and use words instead of fists, Ms. Weiss helps Precious get beyond her abusive past.

Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher structure the narrative in terms of gestation and delivery. In other words, Precious gives birth to both baby and baby self. But the implicit moral, that it takes a village to raise a child to raise her children, feels manufactured.

The searing performances from Mo'Nique and Sidibe suggest another interpretation: that it takes real empathy to create such portraits of resignation and hope.

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey

at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com.

Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/philly/



Directed by Lee Daniels. With Mo'Nique, Gabourey Sidibe, Lenny Kravitz, Sherri Shepherd, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey. Distributed by Lionsgate Films.

Running time: 1 hours, 49 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for child abuse including sexual assault, and pervasive language).