Gabourey Sidibe in Precious

Gabourey Sidibe as Precious.

Audacious and astonishing, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire proves the truism that movies can take us places we never imagined. In this case, it's a hellish corner of 1980s Harlem, but it's also the fantasy realm where 16-year-old Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) escapes from a world that punishes her for merely existing.

Lenny Kravitz in Precious

Lenny Kravitz as nurse John.

In her daydreams, Precious is a music-video vixen or a starlet working the red carpet. In reality, she is obese, virtually illiterate, and pregnant for a second time with her father's child.
Mo'Nique in Precious

Mo'Nique as Precious's mother, Mary.

She's also at the mercy of a mother (Mo'Nique, dead-eyed and terrifying) who beats and humiliates her; Mom's resentful rage intensifies when Precious enrolls in a new school under the gaze of a devoted teacher (Paula Patton). (Other supporting players include Lenny Kravitz as the world's hottest nurse and a perfectly dowdy Mariah Carey as a social worker.)
Paula Patton in Precious

Paula Patton as teacher Ms. Rain.

Precious has won a slew of admirers—it took three prizes at Sundance, and Oprah's Harpo Films became part of its marketing team. The movie's scalding realism is matched by its wicked sense of humor: Precious has a gift for the piquant one-liner ("They talk like TV channels I don't watch," she says of two brainiac friends) and the surprising turn of phrase. "I'm looking up," she says brightly. "I'm looking up…for a piano to fall!"
Mariah Carey in Precious

Mariah Carey as social worker Mrs. Weiss.

As outlandish as it might seem during the film's most ghastly passages, a spirit of wry, cautious optimism does win the day. Precious's name seems like a cruel joke at first, but by movie's end, she has come to own it—she proves that she can love, and be loved back, against all conceivable odds.

Next: Director Lee Daniels on how he got Mariah to ditch those heels