The premise of Precious is so unsettling and bleak that no one would blame you if you didn't want to see it: It's the story of an obese 16-year-old illiterate Harlem girl who's pregnant (for the second time) by her own father, lives with her monstrously abusive mother, and has almost given up on life. But if you do see it, you'll find that it's compelling and artistic, punctuated with warm humor and masterful performances, and ultimately triumphant and hopeful.

The girl is named Claireece "Precious" Jones (she goes by Precious), and she's played with astonishing rawness by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe. Narrating the film, Precious tells us the grim facts. Beyond the ones already noted, she is still in junior high school (where she's dumbly in love with her kindly math teacher); her first child, born with Down syndrome, is technically in her mother's custody but is actually cared for by her grandmother; and her mother, Mary (Mo'Nique), is a welfare-absorbing harridan who abuses Precious in every possible way, hating her daughter for "stealing" her man. Precious did no such thing, of course -- she was raped by her father -- but Mary is not interested in details.

Precious is directed by her principal to an alternative school called Each One Teach One. Her class is populated by other girls who dropped out or were kicked out of public schools for various reasons; it's telling that even in such a motley group, Precious is still the most timid, the most withdrawn, and the most messed-up. The teacher, Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), is dedicated to her work, perhaps the first adult to ever take a genuine interest in helping Precious. The other students might be Precious' first friends, too.