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Girl in the Rough

“Precious” looks at an inner-city life with sympathy but not sentimentality.



The title character in the new film “Precious” is treated as anything but. The movie isn't 10 minutes old before we've seen the poverty-stricken, severely overweight high-school girl Clareece Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) bullied and beaten by her mother (Mo'Nique) and raped by her mother's boyfriend, Precious' father (Rodney Jackson). She's pregnant by him for the second time. We are meant to know, in details sometimes difficult to take, that this is the girl's normal existence. 

As for the rest of Precious' limited life in Harlem, most of her world either picks on her or shakes its head in pitying disdain. Precious is as enormous in size as she is tiny in resources, a life double whammy that seems overwhelming. Fairly remarkably, the film is able to discover some humor and light in Precious' dark world, finding solace with her in typically teen reveries: imagining herself as a film star, a hip-hop artist and model.

Precious is an extremely unusual protagonist for a Hollywood movie: obese, ignorant and poor in an entertainment culture dominated by surface-level ideals of beauty and success. This could be a recipe for overbearing sentimentality, but while it's a little disappointing that the few people who help Precious are so uniformly good-looking — including Lenny Kravitz in a role that feels superfluous — Precious' story is never that.

Directed by “Monsters Ball” producer Lee Daniels, and based upon the novel “Push” by the New York writer Sapphire, “Precious” sticks closely to its protagonist's point of view, which allows it to avoid the cloying mistakes of similar films. Precious doesn't seem to have any options, and the lone one that materializes — a chance to start groping toward a general education diploma at an alternative school with the help of a sympathetic teacher (Paula Patton) — is meager and precarious enough to feel genuine.

The girl's real deliverance comes from the inside, during a moment of awakening late in the movie that's as poignant as it is brief. Blink and you could miss it. “Precious” likely will be recognized during awards season. The performances are excellent all around, especially from the erstwhile comedienne Mo'Nique. But Sidibe deserves special recognition, and so does Daniels' film. (R) 110 min. HHHHI


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