As its subtitle laboriously makes clear, Precious is Lee Daniels's movie adaptation of Sapphire's 1996 novel Push, a controversial best seller that was, among many other things, the antithesis of made-for-Hollywood product. Set in the late '80s, Push chronicles the day-to-day existence of Precious Jones, an illiterate, morbidly obese Harlem teen enduring a life of extreme horror. Precious's curriculum vitae of victimhood is extensive: Twice raped into pregnancy by her father, she's subjected to continual brutal abuse at the hands of her mother. What passes for salvation comes in the form of a writing teacher, who extends Precious some basic human kindness and encourages her to tell her story. Melodrama is avoided thanks to Sapphire's style: Casting her book as a first-person narrative written by an illiterate teen, Sapphire filled her pages with brutally simple writing, almost musical with misspellings, that allowed both the ridiculous horror of the abuse and the well-worn sentiment of the salvation to ring true.
Fifteen years later comes Precious, which, like its literary predecessor, announces itself with audacious style. Presenting Precious's nightmare of a life in sharp, gritty bursts, Daniels threads his film with various stylistic experiments: scenes of Precious's school days flow like cinema verité after-school specials, while her abuse-escaping fantasies are presented as gaudily real. It doesn't all work—the realized fantasies are particularly iffy—but thanks to Daniels's talent and his extraordinary cast, Precious is a smart, scary ass-kicker.
About that cast: The almost fully female ensemble is excellent across the board (underdog props for the ludicrously charming Xosha Roquemore!), but three actors will deservedly get the lion's share of attention. As Precious, newcomer Gabourey Sidibe does exactly what's required of her and nothing more; it's a performance as indebted to Daniels as is it to Sidibe, and it's perfect. As Precious's social worker, Mariah Carey gives a performance of Glitter-obliterating restraint; I've never been more surprised by a pop star's acting endeavor. And as Precious's monster of a mother, Mo'Nique burns the fucking house down. She will win an Oscar, and she will deserve it.