Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire is a harrowing, if occasionally hoary, story of a teenager’s survival and self-reliance amid demonic domesticity.

First-time screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher’s screenplay thankfully strikes with more coiled instinct than clichéd incidents. And although director Lee Daniels (the writer of Monster’s Ball) sometimes pushes the plot’s most exploitative elements, Precious addresses its characters’ afflictions head-on and features two remarkable performances from Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe and Mo’Nique.

Constant worry radiates from the face of Precious (Sidibe). She’s a severely overweight 16-year-old black teenager from Harlem circa 1987, whose dim eyes are sunken in her face and perpetually squinting. The better with which to retreat into her bright fantasy world, where everything from religion to romance is sexualized like a music video, even her milquetoast white math teacher.

Cinematographer Andrew Dunn brings a ripened, pancake-makeup feel to these flights of fancy, which Daniels uses sparingly and effectively. Precious is not dumb, only cuffed to pop-culture notions of beauty and success, and incapable of truly freeing expression. Precious is illiterate and still in junior-high school, which are just the initial reasons why her reveries run counter to a downwardly spiraling reality.

She’s pregnant with her second child of incest — raped by a now-absent father and physically, verbally and sexually abused by her bitterly rancorous mother, Mary (Mo’Nique).

Because of Precious’s girth, it’s impossible to gauge how far along she is, and as for determining by time passed, days have slipped into a thick haze of horror. Precious and her mentally disabled daughter (cruelly nicknamed “Mongo” by Mary) are welfare meal tickets Mary does not want to lose. There are corners of hell with better lighting than their squalid apartment and almost certainly kinder creatures than Mary, who pushes Precious to ditch school in favor of additional welfare to pilfer and is a parasite to Precious’s potential at every possible turn.

On her principal’s advice, Precious begins attending Each One, Teach One — an alternative school managed by the patient, porcelain-skinned Blu Rain (Paula Patton of Déjà Vu). For the first time, Precious has an outlet and options, but will she grow into her own skin or continue in a cycle of violence, abandonment and resentment?

Although unquestionably bleak, Precious isn’t as relentlessly without hope as Daniels’ Monster’s Ball. Where that film paraded out so much tragedy in its first hour that it bordered on parody, Precious is more measured and mature. It also suggests, in a heartbreaking late scene, that there are similarly awful and seemingly inescapable lives for children in the film whose day-to-day existence we don’t see. Like many other directors, Daniels confuses amateurish “verité” zoom-ins with honing in on actors’ emotions. And there are several lapses into film-school indulgence, as well as portions that feel more like Tyler Perry than taut drama. (Perry came on as an executive producer after seeing Precious, as did Oprah Winfrey.) At the same time, Precious is the sort of graphically forthright story of poverty and familial strife Perry thinks he’s telling when he usually resorts to a vaudevillian drag show.

Precious is an unflinching film that musters striking inner-city iconography for communion and baptism, carries welcome respites of light humor and includes two divergently emotional performances to beat this year.

A 26-year-old first-time actress playing a teenager, Sidibe puts forth brave, fearlessly resilient work in casting off Precious’s shell. It’s a marvel to watch her become proactive, informed, instructive and empowering, and it’s genuinely inspiring, not ironically humorous, when she addresses her as-yet-unborn child: “Listen, mama not dumb.” 

On the flipside, Mo’Nique’s is the most atypical actress-to-role matchup since Charlize Theron in Monster, and the sassy comedienne has altered her body in no way other than posture, attitude and charred disposition. It’s not the sort of performance you’d expect from the brassy co-star of Beerfest and Soul Plane

Mary’s emotional deprivations have morphed into vengeful personal demons — the kind no amount of vindictive behavior can exorcise. What’s brilliant about Fletcher’s screenplay, Daniels’ direction and Mo’Nique’s characterization is that they each realize there are some people in this world whose actions cannot be forgiven. Mo’Nique’s showcase moment is a soliloquy that, in a softer film, would attempt to solicit sympathy. (That said, a softer film wouldn’t have included all of her many misdeeds.) Instead, this sequence rationalizes Mary without redeeming her and summons more scorn for this exhaustively evil, jealous and manipulative harridan.

Both performers are complemented by Patton (graceful but grittily determined to help Precious), as well as pop stars Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz. Playing a social worker, Carey dresses down and delivers her dialogue with the no-nonsense working-class cadence of Marisa Tomei. Also, her character’s indeterminate ethnic origin clears up any connotations that the themes of Precious might be exclusively aimed at any one audience. In a lesser role as a male nurse, Kravitz has some brief, gentle touches reminiscent of Mos Def. 

There are no simple answers or easy outs in Precious, only hard confrontations and tougher conclusions. Whatever lies ahead on Precious’s path is unknown, but that uncertainty is underwritten by an inspiration to rise, if only to the middle. “Everything is a gift of the universe,” a title card reads, and this tale of deliverance from adversity into even the most hardscrabble independence lives up to that notion.