Like its title protagonist - a sexually, emotionally and physically abused 16-year-old African American girl who is functionally illiterate, morbidly obese and pregnant with her second child fathered by her own father - Precious is a rough-hewn entity with unlikely odds for success.
Yet both the character and the movie overcome their handicaps to become the kind of success stories that the American mythmaking machinery loves to love. Claireece Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is known by her middle name, a name that sadly affords her the only self-worth she knows. At home she thanklessly waits hand and foot on her mother, Mary (Mo'Nique), herself a disturbed and disturbing figure, both victim and violator, another link in this gruesome cycle of degradation.
They are women in the shadows - in Mary's case almost literally, as she hardly ever leaves their apartment and measures the passage of time by the flickering light of the ever-present TV. Both mother and daughter are products of the pain and abuse in their past, and both have bleak prospects for the future. Instead of looking the other way, however, this movie and the popular book on which it is based place them front and center. We are not allowed the comfort of averting our eyes.
Precious' hulking frame and puffy face seem impervious to the ridicule and scorn that greet them at every turn. But then Sidibe's face suddenly unclenches and reveals something of the starving soul within, and you realize that this first-time actress is a real find, not just a looming presence and narrative device. So, too, with most of the performances here. There is something so raw in almost all of them that the only one that has a whiff of the fictional about it is the role of the so-good, so-loving teacher Blu Rain, played by Paula Patton, the only full-time dramatic actor in the group.
Director Lee Daniels has done a marvelous job of casting famous friends of his, none of them known for dramatic chops, in key roles and getting heart-stirring, stripped-down performances. Mo'Nique is bone-chilling, and Mariah Carey's turn as the plain-Jane social worker is so unaffected and frank that you'll think twice about ever again labeling her a diva.
At times, Daniels' camerawork and editing are inscrutable in terms of where the focus is put and why. The viewer may feel bludgeoned by Precious, but it is certainly the best button-pushing movie of the year.