November 20, 2009 at 1:12 pm

Tom Long Film Review: 'Precious: Based on the novel Push by Sapphire' -- GRADE: A

Review: 'Precious' is power and horror

Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe breathes strength into Claireece "Precious" Jones. (Lionsgate)

With its ungainly title -- "Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire" -- its cast of mostly non-actors and the questionable history of its director (his first and only other film, a wretched mess, never made it to theaters), "Precious" is an undeniable long shot.

But it's the long shot that comes through. As powerful a film as you will see in this or any other year, "Precious" slams you in the chest with its raw but finely balanced portrayal of a teen girl in Harlem whose life is so abusive and dysfunctional that the film can be hard to watch.

But if you do watch -- and you certainly should -- you will see one of the most remarkable performances ever set to film, given by Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe, an untrained novice who nevertheless breathes pain, passion and mountainous strength into the title character, bringing her to life in a way that leaves you aching and torn by the film's end.

Beyond that you will witness one of the most monstrous characters imaginable, Mary, mother of Precious (with the religious irony probably intended), played with mean abandon by the comedian Mo'Nique. The layers of awfulness Mo'Nique brings to this role go beyond what's scripted (which is plenty); it's the sniveling power with which she believes her own victimization that stuns and shocks, from ugly beginning to end.

Claireece Precious Jones is a 300-pound, 16-year-old girl in '80s Harlem, still in middle school, already the mother of an absent child with Down syndrome, when she finds out she's pregnant again and is consequently kicked out of school.

The father of both children is Precious' own father, a drop-by rapist who leaves her to wait on her obnoxious, abusive, welfare-hooked mother.

While pregnant, Precious begins attending an alternative school where her teacher (Paula Patton) encourages her to emerge from the thick emotional shell Precious has built for protection. As a result, Precious moves forward in life ... but how far forward can she really go?

Director Lee Daniels walks right up to the edge with this film, time and time again, but never goes over. The temptation to give in to sentiment, to easy resolution, to spiritual awakening and all the other standard fare that normally brings down a film like this is resisted.

He gives Precious a dream life, but just enough to make us realize she knows how bad things are. He skirts religion, romance and the classic classroom "Dangerous Minds" moments and simply lets Precious be Precious.

And the film's great wonder is how Sidibe slowly reveals the playful, funny and intelligent girl behind her rock-hard mask. In the beginning, you're appalled by her life; in the end you're still appalled, but you are fully aware of the human being in that big body and the intelligence behind those wary eyes.

By the time Precious and Mary have their final meeting with a social worker (Mariah Carey, unrecognizable and powerfully restrained), the broken child has become determined to overcome. Even if she doesn't stand a chance.

Daniels is a veteran industry maverick who has produced two fine films ("Monster's Ball" and "The Woodsman") and directed one awful one ("Shadowboxer"), and he certainly has a flare for dealing with difficult subject matter.

Again, his sense of balance in this film is near perfect (OK, there may be a few too many classroomy moments). And screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher, working off Sapphire's popular novel (which he apparently toned down) gave Daniels a fine road map.

Sidibe and Mo'nique should both be on their way to Oscar nominations. But this is the sort of film that makes awards seem irrelevant.

It reminds you of the power of film, as well as the power -- and the horror -- that resides within the human soul. You don't just see this movie. You carry it with you ever after.

tlong@detnews.com">tlong@detnews.com (313) 222-8879 Read Tom Long's blog at detnews.com/tomlongblog.