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“Precious: Based on a Novel by Sapphire” is a harrowing, hopeful movie about a young woman breaking out of the patterns of poverty, despair and abuse that have swallowed her mother and threaten to swallow her.   Clareece “Precious” Jones has grown up in an unimaginably abusive home;  her father regularly rapes her, and her mother verbally abuses her and throws dishware at her head.   She gets kicked out of school but finds hope in an alternative school environment, and, with the help of a caring social worker and dedicated teacher, is able to set out on her own.

This movie is as bleak and hard to watch as the most pretentious arthouse social document; at the same time, it’s as uplifting and inspiring as a movie like “The Blind Side” or any of the plethora of Horatio Alger riffs that are a ubiquitous part of the American cultural landscape.   That it manages to be both horrifying and hopeful sets it apart. This movie is a cut above the rest.

And the more I think about it, the more I’m amazed that “Precious” is as powerful as it is.   There are plenty of things I don’t like about it.   I don’t think much of the supporting performances.   Mariah Carey is clearly slumming as Precious’ social worker, trolling for an Oscar nom.   Paula Patton isn’t much better as the dedicated teacher who takes care of her;  she is just too pretty and perfect, too dedicated and righteously indignant to be real.  And Lenny Kravitz as a male nurse is just unnecessary.

And I wasn’t a big fan of the fantasy sequences.   Whenever something terrible happens to Precious, she goes to a place in her head that looks like a Las Vegas stage, and we go there with her.   It took me the entire movie to figure out what these sequences were even doing in the movie, and when I did put the pieces together, they, too, felt utterly unnecessary, like a Danny Boyle flourish in a Sam Peckinpah production.  I thought the girls in the alternative school were stereotypical caricatures.   And I didn’t love the arthouse flourishes, like when Precious looks in the mirror and sees a skinny white girl, or the extreme, greasy closeups of food and eating.   That felt overdone and unnecessary

If I cut away all of that, basically what’s left are the performances by the two main characters:  Gabourey Sidibe as Precious, and Mo’Nique as her mother.   The passion, dedication, intensity, and commitment that these two actresses bring to their roles is astonishing and remarkable.  The performances here bear comparisons to the best that cinema has to offer.   Pacino did work like this in the ’70s;  Brando, in the ’50s.    Sometimes Daniel Day-Lewis inhabits his characters to the extent Mo’Nique inhabits Precious’ mother here.   This kind of acting is rare and remarkable.

Sidibe is sullen and withdrawn; she lives within herself and barely speaks, because speaking is dangerous.   At the same time, she is angry, prone to explosions of violence, and terribly afraid.   That’s a lot to pack into one character, especially one that barely talks.    Mo’Nique, on the other hand, is fiery and verbal;  the onslaughts of abuse, both verbal and physical, which she rains upon her pregnant daughter are breathtaking in their ferocity.   She is monstrous, but at exactly the moment when she seems about to receive her comeuppance, she shows what’s underneath all that violence and anger — deep despair, helplessness, desperation and pain.   I can’t call Mo’Nique’s performance anything short of brilliant; you can’t exactly feel sorry for the character, but you can’t exactly  write her off, either.   She resists judgement, because she is a human being– deeply broken, but a human, not a monster.

Give credit to director Lee Daniels for finding the right actresses (Mo’Nique is by profession an comedian, and Sidibe an amateur he found after auditioning thousands) and giving them room and trust to work.   Credit screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher for taking the novel, by Sapphire, and turning it into a script these actresses could work with.   But really, “Precious” belongs to these two actresses, and it a rare treat to watch them go to work.

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