The body of Gabourey Sidibe, a 26-year-old Harlem actress making her film debut as the star of "Precious," is not the kind often seen among leading actresses. Sidibe, who plays the 350-pound Claireece "Precious" Jones, is herself obese. She is also African-American, with darker skin than Hollywood typically prefers on its women.

But the thing to watch in this frank and brutal film, about a nearly illiterate teenager who is pregnant by her own father (again), is Sidibe's face. During moments of pain, and there are many, Precious' eyes withdraw behind protective cheeks. Lectured by well-meaning white people, she adopts a hauteur that would have impressed Bette Davis. Confronted with kindness, she suddenly looks as trusting as an infant.

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The remarkable Sidibe is one of several daring casting choices by director Lee Daniels. The others include comedian Mo'Nique as Precious' monstrously abusive mother, Mary; the elegant Paula Patton as an inner-city schoolteacher; and Mariah Carey as a seen-it-all social worker. (Lenny Kravitz appears briefly as a male nurse.)

Sharp acting across the board helps "Precious" rise above its message-movie limitations, as does Daniels' refusal to pretty up his story. (The script, by Geoffrey Fletcher, is based on Sapphire's 1996 novel.) When Precious gobbles an entire bucket of fried chicken, leaving her face shiny with grease, you might find yourself wanting to look away. Of course, that's been society's reaction to Precious all her life.

Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry are credited as executive producers here, but that doesn't mean this is a feel-good redemption story. In Precious' world, survival must count as triumph enough.