Back in the early days of the 2002 Oscar season, the two front-runners for the Best Actor statue were none other than Adam Sandler and Eminem. Needless to say things didn’t exactly work out for them (neither were nominated and Adrien Brody took home the award), but this year we have an equally unlikely candidate in Mo’nique (you may know her better as Jazmin from Phat Girlz) for her terrifying portrayal of Mary in Precious: Based on the novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire. Mary is the out of work mother of the titular heroine (Gabourey Sidibe) who spends her days abusing her daughter and sitting in front of trash TV like a beached whale. It’s powerful, compelling performance and the best thing about Lee Daniels’ fire breathing new film.

Sidibe is no slouch in the acting department either and keeps her character right in the forefront. Precious has kind of had a run of bad luck; besides being obese, illiterate, abused, and poor, she is also pregnant with her second child, both of whom were products of her father raping her. To get by she dissociates like crazy – and why not – constantly imagining herself anywhere but in the world in which she lives. Imagining herself as a super model or as a Hollywood actress walking the red carpet, Precious is able to escape her nightmare, but only fleetingly. That can only do so much to dull the pain of having her own mother throw a frying pan at her head while screaming "I should have aborted your ass."

At times the film actively seems to be trying to see just how much pain and suffering an audience can endure. It also seems to be trying for some sort of brutal realism, but the way in which it never relents and just keeps piling misery on top of Precious eventually leads to it feeling like an artistically produced soap opera. At times Daniels uses things such as liberal guilt and good old-fashioned rubbernecking to get you to go along for the ride, but at the end it doesn’t matter because, taken as a whole, the experience is sheer exhilaration. Even the most horrific scenes of domestic abuse will have you gasping in disgust and secretly begging for more.

Since this is a fictional story Precious is not totally left high and dry in the hope department, and in this case she finds that hope in the school system. After her principal discovers that she is pregnant again, and suspends her, she recommends that she attend an alternative education facility. There she meets Miss Rain (Paula Patton), a kind and gentle soul that attempts to break through the layers of hurt and find the real Precious underneath. Most of this is done in a classroom setting that is very reminiscent of recent movies such as Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers.

But here Daniels was smart enough to maneuver his way around the previous mistakes of those films. Instead of watching impoverished kids learn how to recite poverty we get down to the unpleasant dirt and see the decidedly unpretty process that is teaching challenged 16-year-olds how to read anything at all. It also doesn’t suffer from Great White Hope Syndrome either, Miss Rain is still the belle of the ball, but she’s also black, which hopefully will send the message that not all inner-city heroes are white.

Even during all this Mary is always lurking in the background. When Precious returns home from the hospital after having her second baby she walks into one of the most harrowing accounts of domestic violence ever recorded on film. It moves Mary about three light years beyond redemption and yet, in a creative misstep, Daniels still spends the climax of the film explaining away her actions. Everybody has some pain in their past that could be used to justify becoming a monster, but it is only the monsters who succumb to it.

Still his work is a rousing success. Daniels drags his audience down to the depths of Hell, something that is always harder than simply selling uninhibited uplift to the Thanksgiving crowd. In limited release the film set box office records for a per-screen average and has been able to maintain that momentum as it has rolled out across the country. Now, whether that is due to its merits as a work of art or because it carries with it the most important credit of all (produced by Oprah) is open to debate.

Starring: Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey

Director: Lee Daniels

Writer: Geoffrey Fletcher (based on the novel by Sapphire)

Runtime: 109 minutes

Distributor: Lions Gate Entertainment

Rated: R