PreciousGreen lightThe quality of acting in director Lee Daniels’s heart pulverising drama Precious is of such a high standard that even two mainstream musos – Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz – come out of it looking like seasoned professionals.

You get the sense that it wouldn’t matter who Daniels dished out parts to (Chris Rock, Dwayne Johnson, hell, even Rob Schneider) because the impression is that no single person would be capable of toppling this film’s authenticity. Its unflinching grasp of realism is alleviated only during fantasy moments in which the protagonist, an obese and illiterate African American teenager, imagines she is somebody else.

Her name is Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) and she’s pregnant – to her father – with her second child. Struggling at school, Precious is invited to join a special class for trouble students in the hope that her life can be steered in a better direction. But don’t expect a cheesy classroom story in which the characters ponder the hidden meaning of Bob Dylan lyrics or do “crazy” things like stand on top of their desks to obtain a fresh perspective on life. Dangerous Minds this ain’t.

The real horror in Precious’s life unfolds when she returns home to the wrath of her unemployed mother Mary (Mo’Nique), a despicable and domineering slob whose cankerous presence is like a blaze of fire, singeing every soul within a two block radius. A scene during which Mary pleads to her case worker (Mariah Carey) is the pinnacle of Mo’Nique’s breathtaking high voltage performance. You can see the flecks of goodness scattered across her horrible personality, you can feel the pathetic frailty beneath her bullish exterior. Mo’Nique hammers it home with an authenticity so real it hurts. Like hell.

Gabourey Sidibe’s pivotal performance is also outstandingly nuanced – the kind of acting that would ordinarily guarantee her a healthy future career in Hollywood if her physical stature didn’t make that virtually impossible, given the industry’s narrow casting pool.

In 2005 Lee Daniels directed a dreadful Cuba Gooding Jnr crime movie called Shadowboxer, about a botchy romance between two professional killers. How he was able to turn his career around so decisively is inexplicable.

Precious is not easy viewing, but it’s not all down-n-out tragedy either. Underneath the film there is an inspiring message of hopefulness and resilience – that a good, precious soul can persevere amid seemingly intolerable darkness and despair. People interested in acting as a craft will have few if any opportunities this year to see performances driven by the kind of courage and conviction as those exhibited here.

Precious’s Australian theatrical release date: February 4, 2010.