A MOTHERLOAD OF INSPIRATION

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire is an Oscar frontrunner

Precious **** Opens areawide Friday

Don't let the Oprah and Tyler Perry imprimatur scare you off. Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire confounds expectations (prejudices?) at every turn. A remarkably accomplished sophomore outing by director Lee Daniels, whose previous film (the risible Shadowboxer, starring Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr. as stepmother-and-son professional killers/lovers) was barely released three years ago, Precious tells the story of morbidly obese 16-year-old Harlem teenager Claireece "Precious" Jones (knockout newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) forced to deal with a second unwanted pregnancy after her first baby was born with Down's Syndrome.

Compounding Claireece's dire predicament is an abusive mother (sitcom diva Mo'Nique in a fearless, take-no-prisoners performance that seems destined to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar) battling formidable demons of her own. Despite the unrelenting bleakness and gut-wrenching despair of its no-exit milieu and dead-end characters, Precious is leavened with flights of magic realism as captivating as they are emotionally cathartic. In one scene, Claireece fantasizes about starring in her very own ghetto-fabulous music video.

In a pitch-perfect, black-and-white pastiche of Vittorio De Sica's 1960 Italian art flick Two Women, Claireece and her mother swap roles with Sophia Loren and Eleonora Brown. Besides demonstrating oodles of visual flair (Andrew Dunn did the superb cinematography), Daniels also proves to be a first-rate director. He even elicits terrific supporting turns from pop queen Mariah Carey and rocker Lenny Kravitz, both almost unrecognizable here as, respectively, a sympathetic social worker and compassionate male nurse.

Winner of audience awards earlier this year at both the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals (and a de facto frontrunner in this year's Oscar race), Precious is currently experiencing a mini-backlash of sorts, thanks to a coterie of smarty-pants critics (including professional naysayer Armond White) for various perceived or imagined sins. The funniest is White's contention that Daniels' movie is a "sociological horror show" and "full of brazenly racist clichés."

Yet it's precisely Daniels' refusal to soft pedal the abuse heaped upon Claireece that makes her ultimate redemption so moving and, yes, inspirational. If even a battered and bruised soul like Claireece can be saved, maybe the rest of us have a fighting chance. There are precious few like Precious.

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