There’s a lot “Precious” has going against it before you’ve even sat down to watch the film. For starters, there’s the mind-numbingly obvious title — changed from the original “Push” — that smacks you over the head with its bitter irony: an abused girl named “Precious” — ho ho ho.

“Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire”

At the Showcase
Lionsgate

And then there’s the story, which piles tragedy after tragedy on top of the poor main character (black Harlem teenager Precious Jones) to the point where viewers will practically need to pop a bottle of Prozac before even sitting down to watch the thing.

Precious is 16 years old, and she’s pregnant with her second child. And the father of the child is her own father — he raped her. And her first child has Down syndrome. And her mother assaults and torments her night and day. And they live on welfare checks. And she just got kicked out of high school.

There’s just too much sad going on all at once, almost to a parodic extreme — bordering on comedian Dave Chappelle’s description of the ghetto as a place where babies sell weed on the streets. “Well, OK,” you’ll say to yourself during the film’s deliberately crude, misspelled opening credits. “Maybe this is going to be exactly the kind of melodrama I expected from a movie presented by Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry.”

But it’s not. “Precious” gets to you in ways you don’t expect. The film finds your emotional center by investing so much in its characters that they virtually become real — yes, even Precious’s monster of a mother, played with uncharacteristic fierceness by Mo’Nique (“Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins”), an actress who usually resigns herself to playing the “fat girl” in comedies. The anger and insanity of her character is often over-the-top, but it never seems like she’s acting. Her dialogue flows naturally and her nervous breakdowns feel disturbingly intimate.

“Precious” really belongs to Gabourey Sidibe, though. In her lead role as Precious, the newcomer could have easily undersold or oversold her struggle to succeed in the world, either of which would have resulted in an unmitigated cinematic disaster. Miraculously, this isn’t the case. Precious clearly has a tough soul, and Sidibe communicates this to an astonishing degree. Over the course of the film, she finds her way to an alternative education center led by a saintly teacher (Paula Patton, “Swing Vote”), in which her success and newfound relationships help her forge a new path of hope in a less obvious and cheesy way than one would expect.

Director Lee Daniels’s (“Shadowboxer”) stylized approach to the story is surprising but mostly effective. There are fantasy scenes when Precious imagines herself as the star of BET music videos, and while these can get a little too obvious with their message, Daniels reserves them for key moments. Still, Daniels adds other great touches that reveal everything about Precious that she’s not saying out loud: One brief sequence shows her looking into a mirror, with a skinny white girl looking back.

The script, by first-timer Geoffrey Fletcher, also transcends the well-worn ghetto-fabulous redemption story by keeping the audience on a tight, suspenseful leash, always concerned with where these characters are heading next. Fletcher has a great instinct for dialogue, so much so that it’s hard to pinpoint what he wrote and what the actors improvised. Regardless, the structures of the scenes are all his, and he demonstrates a strong understanding of dramatic flow.

In the film, Precious’s mother puts on an act with her disabled child to fool a social worker into handing them more welfare checks. The kids at the alternative school introduce themselves and joke about each other’s stereotypes. Precious notes via voice-over that her teacher talks like “TV channels I don’t watch.” These telling moments help create incredibly three-dimensional characters — hyper-realistic souls who genuinely don’t know how to handle the situations they’re in.

By the end, though, it’s hard to say whether the film’s brought you up enough after bringing you down so far. Even toward the end, awful new acts of misfortune continue to befall the protagonist. Was quite this much doom and gloom necessary to tell the story? Maybe it’s a success — we’re with the characters the whole way through, never throwing up our arms in revulsion. Still, this movie has the power to reach out and touch you. And that’s so rare these days that “Precious” is something that should be treasured.

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