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MOVIES: Big-name stars tackle serious issues in 'Precious'

Special Photo: Lionsgate. Gabourey Sidibe, left, plays Precious and Mo'Nique, right, plays Mary in "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire."

Special Photo: Lionsgate. Gabourey Sidibe, left, plays Precious and Mo'Nique, right, plays Mary in "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire."

"Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" (R)

2 1/2 out of 4 stars

Every once in a while Hollywood releases a "meaningful film" that is brimming with both honorable intentions and unrestrained, pretentious egoism. All one has to do is look at the poster for this movie to see where it's coming from. Above the image of an overweight and faceless black woman is written: Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry present a Lee Daniels film Precious based on the novel "Push" by Sapphire.

Easily the two most powerful black people in the entertainment industry, both Winfrey and Perry have made their fortunes by appealing to the masses, most of whom have zero interest in seeing this movie. While Winfrey has produced "serious" films in the past, this is a first for Perry whose stock in trade is peddling negative urban stereotypes via TV and the movies.

Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) is a 16-year-old, illiterate, obese, dark-skinned black girl who is pregnant with her second child. Both children (one with Down syndrome named Mongo) were fathered by her own father who is also HIV positive. Precious' unemployed mother Mary (Mo'Nique) tells her she's a loser and should "go on the welfare." Mary beats Precious regularly and in one scene throws a TV set down a two-story stairwell hitting her daughter on the head while she's holding a baby. Mother and daughter live in squalor in one of the worst Harlem neighborhoods imaginable.

It could be worse. Precious could also be a gun-toting crack addict and gang-member.

If that doesn't paint enough of a mental image for you, Daniels sees to it you get the picture and then some. A painfully graphic rape scene is given the same up-close, color-saturated treatment as baffling fantasy sequences where Precious imagines herself as a movie star. At one point she looks in the mirror and sees a thin blond white girl in the reflection.

At this point you might ask yourself, why bother with this movie? It sounds relentlessly downbeat and pointlessly exaggerated. About half of it is. The remainder is thoughtful, low-key and comes off something like an after-school special with profanity.

After telling Mary where she can go, Precious starts attending a school for troubled girls and while it is initially rough going, she is eventually embraced by her street-wise classmates and an infinitely patient teacher (Paula Patton). Precious delivers her second child while still in school and in recovery strikes up what might be a budding romance with a male nurse played by none other than rocker Lenny Kravitz.

The big surprise is that Kravitz is a pretty good actor and -- hold on tight -- so is the barely recognizable Mariah Carey as an unadorned, no-nonsense social worker assigned to Precious' case. Every performer in the film -- and that includes Mo'Nique's mother from Hell -- is impressive in their respective roles.

The normally indifferent-to-the-press Lionsgate studio screened this movie for critics way back in mid-summer, which was the first in what will be likely a torrent of award-seeking PR moves. The promotion for this movie is almost as shameless and blunt as Daniels' sledgehammer direction and you can count on some heavy protests and backlash if it doesn't get a handful of Oscar nominations.

Stay tuned. (Lionsgate)