Set in Harlem in 1987. Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) endures unimaginable hardships in her young life. She's pregnant for the second time to her abusive father; at home she must wait hand and foot on a poisonously angry mother. In these conditions she grows up poor, angry, illiterate, fat, unloved and generally unnoticed. But underneath her impassive expression is a watchful, curious young woman with an inchoate but unshakeable sense that other possibilities exist for her.

A good exercise in being non-judgmental.

Film marketeers are convinced that potential viewers have to "identify" with the subject of a given film in order to connect with it. Hence the reductive inanity of assuming that women might not want to see a film in which the Nazi occupiers of France are harshly dealt with by "basterds" or that the portion of the population with testicles wouldn't set foot in a theatre to watch a tall, iconic cooking specialist's adventures contrasted with those of a contemporary blogger who makes her way through her elder predecessor's cookbook.

Most of us are not morbidly obese African-American teens with horrifyingly abusive single mothers and yet Precious – the riveting tale of a young woman who meets that description – is so forthright, stunning and imaginative in its approach that it's hard to think of a category of ticket buyer that wouldn't be satisfied by having taken the plunge.

Watching Precious is a good exercise in being non-judgmental. You can't look at the character of Precious – or Gabourey Sidibe, the remarkable young woman who plays her – and waste brain cells thinking "Gosh, she really shouldn't weigh that much and she really shouldn't be pregnant."

Precious simply IS. And we as viewers are drawn into her story and care about her.

That said, it borders on silliness to make the URL for the film's official website Yes, we are all "valuable" in our own way, but we are NOT all Precious.

Precious, who lives in New York City, thinks nothing of polishing off a whole bucket of fried chicken – you know, the size designed for a family of at least 4 different people enjoying a meal together.

She may be illiterate but she's certainly not stupid, so you can't help wondering how she ended up in a situation where she got pregnant. When the film shares the particulars with us, we think "Well, yeah – under those circumstances I could have ended up pregnant, too." And the strange thing is, this goes for folks without wombs.

The film's full title is among the most cumbersome since Peter Brook filmed The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade over 40 years ago. It is fine to be reminded of the name of the author of the source material. Hence (hello Mr. Luhrmann) William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet. Sapphire is an author and poet whose 1996 novella 'Push' provided the raw material for Geoffrey Fletcher's screenplay.

Charenton's insane asylum in France in 1808 was no nuttier than the environment in which Precious has been raised. Her mother, Mary (played with terrifying power by Mo’Nique) watches TV, takes drugs, collects welfare cheques and heaps verbal and physical abuse on Precious. If a delivery of self esteem showed up at their front door, Mary would kick it in the ribs, douse it with lighter fluid and toss a match at it.

Mary has no plans to be a productive member of society and has raised her daughter to have zero aspirations. But Precious enjoys a vivid fantasy life, depicted in surprisingly effective little vignettes. These imaginative episodes are the only positive component of Precious' existence until she ends up in a literacy program run by a caring teacher named Ms. Rain (Paula Patton). Social worker Ms. Weiss (played with perfect pitch by singer Mariah Carey) drives a hard bargain but her no-nonsense probing goes beyond perfunctory and leads to a cathartic speech scarier in its ramifications than almost any horror movie.

Precious encounters more obstacles en route to adulthood than most people experience in a lifetime. The barriers she faces to building a better life look to us like Hoover Dam must look to a snail. Objectively speaking, there's just way too much tragedy concentrated in too small a space. None of this should work, yet it does. Perhaps that's thanks to director Lee Daniels, perhaps it's because we're all part of a planetary experiment in suspension of disbelief. If you're reading this, it's entirely possible that you've already read or heard more about this film than anybody should know going into the theatre. But odds are you'll still be gripped and touched by what's on screen.

Ways to watch 'Precious' 

Saturday March 18, 8.30pm SBS VICELAND
Available after broadcast at SBS On Demand 

USA, 2009
Why You Should Watch: Precious


Watch interview with Gabourey Sidibe