Film review: Precious

PRECIOUS (15) ****DIRECTED BY: LEE DANIELS STARRING: GABOUREY SIDIBE, MO'NIQUE, MARIAH CAREY, PAULA PATTON, LENNY KRAVITZ

• Gabourey Sidibe as Precious, who manages to flourish amid abuse and misery

LIKE its extended, bluntly literal title, there's no attempt to disguise the fact that the heroine of Precious: Based on the novel Push by Sapphire is both oddly unique and a little unwieldy. Physically imposing to begin with, as the film opens, Clarice "Precious" Jones (played by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) is obese, illiterate, 16 and pregnant for the second time. Her first child, born when Precious was just 12, has Down's syndrome (with nave affection she calls her daughter "Mongol") and the father of both is her own now-absent father, who has left the family slum having systematically abused Precious since she was a baby.

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If these circumstances aren't bad enough to endure, Precious's mother, Mary (Mo'Nique), with whom she still lives in a rundown Harlem tenement, actually blames her for the abuse she's been subjected to. Irrationally viewing her as a rival for her man's sexual attentions, she has turned a blind eye to it over the years, allowing her own ignorance, bitterness and jealousy manifest itself in a torrent of physical, emotional, verbal and psychological abuse that she dishes out to Precious daily.

It's no wonder Precious daydreams about her middle-aged maths teacher sweeping her off to a life in the suburbs, or imagining what it would be like to star in a glamorous music video with millions of people offering her unbridled adoration. When life is this unbearably tough, when every waking hour is spent constantly waiting for the next piece of sky to fall in on her head, brief moments of respite such as these reflect the crude coping mechanisms she's developed to get through each miserable, loveless day. They also serve double duty in the film, making it possible to endure such a relentlessly sad story by shielding us from the most graphic moments of misery in Precious's life, as well as clueing us in to the real focus of the film: to make us see Precious as a real human being, rather than a mere statistic of a failed social system.

This starts to happen when the headmaster of her high school throws her a lifeline by recommending she transfer to a special school more equipped to deal with her educational needs. Though her mother insists she sign on for welfare instead, she secretly enrolls and, once there, begins to flourish under the guidance of an unsentimental literacy teacher by the name of Blu Rain (Paula Patton), who encourages her students to write to her every day in their journals, so she can write back when reviewing them each night.

Here, director Lee Daniels consciously pays tribute to The Color Purple – Alice Walker's novel, not Steven Spielberg's sentimental adaptation of it – by plugging us into Precious's interior life and letting us experience the way her perception of the world becomes more sophisticated as her ability to articulate her thoughts and feelings becomes more advanced. It's a clever device and helps the film avoid the pitfalls of the dreaded inspirational teacher movie, elements of which it flirts with but mercifully doesn't commit to. This is a film about its titular character and her point of view; it's not a film about a sanctimonious maverick looking to change the system.

That's a tough thing to pull off, especially as Precious is such a passive character. All credit, then, to Sidibe, who is a real life-force on camera, alive to the way the smallest, most mundane things in Precious's life might offer her a momentary escape from the hardship surrounding her. She also convincingly imbues her with a sense of humour, an ability to laugh at life sometimes, even when it continually smacks her down. She's complemented here by the fearless way Daniels mashes up film-making styles.

Though he frequently makes use of the kind of gritty aesthetic usually associated with social realism, he's not afraid of throwing more polished visual flourishes, fantasy sequences and moments of comedy into the mix. It's a risky strategy, but it works, partly because of the surprising performances he gets from his supporting cast, who ground the film and supply much of the dramatic momentum. A former casting director, as well as a producer of edgy independent films such as Monster's Ball and The Woodsman, Daniels – in keeping with the theme of the film – has good instincts about what people are capable of.

Casting Mariah Carey – sans make-up and diva-like baggage – as a tough-talking welfare worker, for instance, smacks of stunt casting on paper, but she's raw and ready on film, unrecognisable and totally in the moment. Lenny Kravitz, too, is great as a male nurse who becomes the one positive male presence in Precious's life.

Then there's Mo'Nique's performance as Mary. Best known in the US as a comedian and sitcom actor, she does astonishing work by taking a character that frequently teeters on the brink of being a histrionic ghetto grotesque and transforming her into a living, breathing, depressingly fallible, human being.

Precious's final-act showdown hits you with the force of a freight train. That said, the film is not designed to be an endurance test and Daniels never lets the worthiness of the story do the talking. We know going in it's going to be difficult; the surprise is just how much the film and the characters seek to engage and move us on a human level. Great stuff.