As Hollywood closed specialty divisions that aimed for quality and personal stories, as studios focus more and more on superhero sagas and action blockbusters, cinema fans have rightly wondered, who's left to make great American movies?
For one, the makers of "Precious: Based on the Novel `Push' by Sapphire," who assembled some of the unlikeliest ingredients — Mariah Carey, Mo'Nique, and a lead actress plucked from an anonymous casting call — to create a wondrous work of art.
The film isn't easy to watch and will test your tolerance for despicable behavior as a long history of physical abuse and incest unfolds involving an illiterate, obese Harlem schoolgirl.
Yet "Precious" — both the film and its grandly resilient title character — will steal your heart. Lee Daniels, in just his second film as director, crafts a story that rises from the depths of despair to a place of genuine hope.
This isn't a fairy tale. "Precious" doesn't strain to present some happy-ever-after transformation that simply never could happen considering the harsh reality in which it's set.
Rather, the film reflects an inner spirit everyone can recognize, that role-playing game we indulge in to get us through our big and small hard times, imagining our lives are different, better. That we are different and better.
Claireece "Precious" Jones literally wills it to be so, and as played in a phenomenal screen debut by Gabourey Sidibe, she makes an utterly believable and electrifying rise from an urban abyss of ignorance and neglect.
Adapted from the novel "Push" by Sapphire — who taught reading and writing for eight years in Harlem, Brooklyn and the Bronx, to students like Precious and her peers — the film is simultaneously tender and savage as Precious learns to apply that simple verb: Push yourself, push your boundaries, if others try to stop you, push them out of the way.
(The film debuted as "Push" at January's Sundance Film Festival, where it won both the top jury prize and the award as the audience's favorite film; the title was changed to avoid confusion with Dakota Fanning's sci-fi adventure "Push," released last February.)
When we first encounter her, Precious is pregnant with her second child by her own father, who raped her repeatedly while her mother, Mary (Mo'Nique), looked the other way and later heaped abuse on her daughter out of jealousy and spite.
To call Mary a viper would disrespect the other human reptiles that walk among us. She is the lowest of the low, a woman in need of new and nastier adjectives than loathsome and contemptible to do her justice.
Mo'Nique, best known for raunchy, low-brow comedy (and who coincidentally played a character named Precious in Daniel's directing debut, "Shadowboxer"), embodies Mary perfectly, not as a villain but a woman too ignorant, too unaware to fathom what a horrible person she is. When Mo'Nique's Mary says she did her best for Precious, you believe that she believes it. Mo'Nique should win an Oscar for this performance.
The reverse of Mary is Blu Rain (the radiant Paula Patton), a teacher at an alternative school where Precious finally begins to learn after years of getting good grades while remaining unable to read and write at public school.
Blu is chief among the guardian angels that come into Precious' life. Her benefactors also including Lenny Kravitz as a maternity-ward nurse, Sherri Shepherd as a worker at her new school and a room full of vibrant young women who become more like sisters than classmates to Precious.
Carey delivers warmly and honestly in a small role as a social worker, a surprising turnaround from her laughable musical bomb "Glitter."
While veteran performers reveal previously unsuspected depth, Sidibe is an out-of-nowhere revelation. She was in college in the Bronx, where she had appeared in some campus theater, when she turned up for open auditions on "Precious."
Sidibe's Precious is scary, funny, fragile, willful, exasperating, ferocious, sweet, indignant, joyful — while at heart remaining a little girl in desperate need of just one hand to hold, one finger to point her the way. She and Mo'Nique both could be going home with Oscars.
Geoffrey Fletcher's screenplay mirrors Sapphire's first-person novel, allowing Precious to blossom in her own words as her confidence builds as a writer.
Daniels seamlessly blends the stark awfulness of Precious' life with fantasy sequences in which she's a star, interviewed at red-carpet premieres, performing at the Apollo, then ultimately and lovingly coaxes his heroine into a better reality somewhere in between.
Since its Sundance premiere, the film has gained its own guardian angels. Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry were so charmed by the film, they signed on as executive producers, while Mary J. Blige wrote a song to add to the soundtrack.
You could call "Precious" one of those little miracles of independent film, but you'd be wrong. "Precious" and all its disparate ingredients constitute one very big miracle — and a glimpse of what American cinema still can be, whether or not Hollywood cares about making good films.
"Precious," a Lionsgate release, is rated R for child abuse including sexual assault, and pervasive language. Running time: 109 minutes. Four stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.