Gabourey Sidibe, in 'Precious'

Dir. Lee Daniels
(2009, R, 110 min)
★ ★ ★

Precious, it of the awkward title caused, I’ve been told, by the release of other films called Push and Precious last year, is made with a lot of grit, but is a surprisingly conventional urban-poverty drama, with all the trappings: a disadvantaged youth, a pair of abusive parents, an inspirational teacher, a caring social worker, and a group of quirky inner-city classmates for color and comic relief — subtract the F-words and they’re the kids from Sister Act 2.

Gabourey Sidibe, making her feature debut, stars as 16-year-old Clareece “Precious” Jones, who in an early scene is called to the principal’s office, where she confesses that she’s pregnant with her second child. She’s expelled, but referred to an alternative school where she comes under the wing of Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), who teaches Precious all the life lessons she learned from an inspirational-teacher curriculum of Stand and Deliver, Freedom Writers, et al.

Precious’s father we see only in a flashback in which he rapes her; both of her children are his. Otherwise she is left in the care of her mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), in their run-down Harlem walk-up, where they field visits from easily fooled social workers. Mary doesn’t have a chip on her shoulder, she has boulders. Blaming Precious for taking her boyfriend away, she verbally, physically, and, it is suggested, even sexually abuses her daughter. The performance by Mo’Nique is exceptional; for a while, Mary is a very standard variety of monster, acted with fire-and-brimstone effectiveness, but in a late scene the actress unleashes a torrent of tortured-soul vulnerability that, for a brief moment, shows us the wounded, angry, neglected woman underneath all her loathsome misery.

Director Lee Daniels balances an often sentimental screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher — based, as per the title, on a novel by Sapphire — with a tone of dark realism, except for fantasy sequences meant to contrast Precious’s bright interior life with her dreary living conditions. The fantasies are effective, though I wished they were more vivid, that Daniels and Fletcher had been even more subjective, internal, and personal to greater distinguish their story, whose elements, on their own, are familiar to the point of cliche. However, Daniels and his cast mostly sidestep melodrama — a few you-can-do-it affirmations from Ms. Rain could use some toning down — in favor of hardscrabble authenticity. The material is high tragedy, but Daniels grounds it in reality.