In a vibrant and happy swirl of glamorous color, a teenage black girl named Precious (Gaboury Sidibe) sees herself as a media star, surrounded by adoring young men. A quick cut forces Precious and the audience into her miserable reality. She’s grossly overweight, near illiterate, living in a ramshackle tenement apartment with her monstrous mother, Mary (TV comic Mo’Nique), who emotionally abuses her, often reaching physical violence. Precious has already given birth to one child, a little girl with Down’s Syndrome, she calls “Mongo” (for Mongoloidism), who is being raised by her grandmother. And now she’s pregnant again. Both pregnancies were the result of being raped by her father.

In school, Precious survives the cruelty of her classmates’ barbs as best she can. But it’s hopeless. She’s too unattractive to have friends, especially boy friends, and she’s hostile and physically aggressive. She’s good at math however and this one positive is enough to encourage her teachers to recommend she be admitted to an alternative school where she can get one on one attention from dedicated teachers. Here she meets Ms. Rain (Paula Patton) and a group of other troubled girls. Every day Ms. Rain makes the girls write about their lives in their journals and read to the class. At first reluctant, Precious gradually learns to love the process, finding in the power of writing the confidence she needs to escape the prison her mother has made for her.

While she’s in school, her mother demands that Precious follow her example and get welfare. The social worker handling her case, Mrs. Weiss (singer Maria Carey) insists that Precious reveal the truth about her home life in order to receive funds. In horror, Mrs. Weiss learns who the father of Precious’ children is and does her best to help her.

In the middle of class one day, Precious goes into labor. And when she wakes in the hospital with her new baby, she is surrounded by the smiling girls from her class, and a kindly male nurse who makes them all laugh. Precious wants to keep her baby and raise him by herself. She promises that she will love her child and never treat him like her mother treated her. She even works the welfare system so she can take care of her first child, too. It’s been a remarkable journey and now everything seems to finally be working out. Then Precious is smacked with some terrible new problem. It takes every ounce of her new-found confidence to help Precious take the next few steps forward.

Precious is perhaps the most unique film of 2009. No other film this past year dealt with the harsh realities of poor black welfare families in urban America. No film in my memory has ever told such a raw story of a teenage girl. On one hand, the story is so horrible you want to cover your eyes and run from the theatre in tears. On the other hand, there is no false sentimentality in this film, so you’re mesmerized by its honesty — a tribute both to the original novel by Sapphire, and to the judicious handling of the story by relative newcomer, director Lee Daniels. Dynamic fantasy scenes provide needed breaks from the documentary-like realism.

Even more impactful are the performances. At first you are repulsed by young Sidibe as Precious, she’s so obese, so angry, so damaged, you can’t relate to her, you don’t want to relate to her, she’s too scary. As the story progresses, her courage transforms her in your eyes, she becomes beautiful, noble, a young woman worth emulating. In time you come to love her and are ashamed that you originally built up a wall between you.

Much has been made about the performances turned in by two glamorous media divas, Mo’Nique and Maria Carey, who played their characters with unadorned faces and brutal truthfulness. The fuss over them is warranted. Both performances are remarkable, even astonishing in light of their usual public personas. Mo’Nique is now high in the running to win an Oscar for best supporting actress.

In recessions, film audiences often want to spend their theatre dollars on high budget escapist fare, so Precious is not going to be on the big screen for long. But if you love good stories and fine performances, and are willing to risk seeing a totally different film, you owe it to yourself to see Precious, even if you have to wait until it comes out on DVD.

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