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A girl named Precious goes from nobody to the toast of Toronto

Mariah Carey (yes, Mariah Carey) with Gabby Sidibe in "Precious."

TORONTO -- It was a hit last January at Sundance, and now the intensely emotional indie drama "Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire" is gathering more applause at the Toronto film festival. Here to support it are two of the biggest names in media, Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry. Both actually signed on as executive producers after seeing the completed film.

"It's so raw at the end it sucks the air out of the room," Winfrey said about the forthcoming film "Precious." When she saw it, "I was gasping." She telephoned its director, Lee Daniels, offering her help.

At the same time, actor-director Tyler Perry was calling Daniels.

That's unusual. Producers usually come aboard before, not after, a film is finished. This film, like Push, the novel by Sapphire it is based on, has inspired passionate reactions. The story of a fat, sexually abused teenage girl, pregnant with her second child, it perhaps doesn't sound like box-office material. But it won a powerful response at its press screenings, and played here Sunday night in the 2,800-seat Roy Thomson Hall. It is scoring 100 percent on the Tomatometer.

It was not always so destined. "We go around with a film stuck together with love, bubble gym and popsicle sticks," Daniels said at a press conference here Sunday morning. "You throw it out there and pray." This is Daniels' second film as a director; his first feature credit was as producer of "Monster's Ball."

The backing of Winfrey and Perry was instrumental. Perry's own new film, "I Can Do Bad All by Myself," opened Friday and won the box office. But here he was promoting a different film, "Precious," out in November. He helped find it a release through Lions Gate, the company that distributes his films.

"My mom asked me why I didn't make films like Tyler Perry," Daniels said, "so she can feel good when she goes to church."

In the film the heroine, who never speaks in school, is insulted and bullied and sees herself as negligible, but has her intelligence spotted by a teacher (Paula Patton) and a social worker (Mariah Carey). Having escaped to a mental fantasy world where she's an Oscar nominee, she very slowly learns to value the person she is.

Something of the same experience happened to Gabourey Sidibe, who plays the heroine "Precious" Jones. Although at 24 she's personable, outgoing and much more articulate than Precious, Gabby hadn't dreamed of rising above her office job.

"I've grown up," she said. "I got so much education on the set, and meeting people I admire. It was an education I didn't get in college and as a receptionist. I was smart, but I was wrong about what I could do. I thought I'd be a receptionist all my life."

"We watched Gabby change from a receptionist to someone with so much pride," Daniels said. "We held 500 auditions after sending out a casting call for an African-American girl weighing 400 pounds."

"I'm not 400 pounds!" Gabby interrupted with good comic timing. "I'm an actress and I'm awesome -- not that I wasn't always awesome."

Flanking her was an impressive panel, including Winfrey; Perry; Sapphire; Gabby's co-stars Patton, Carey, and Sherri Shepherd, and Mary J. Blige, who wrote and performs the closing song. Mo'Nique, who gives a powerful performance as Precious' drug-abusing mother, "is at home reading Curious George to her twins," Oprah said.

Carey is hard to recognize in the film. "I brought all of my wigs," she said, "but Lee had a very specific look in mind. No makeup. The makeup person told me, 'Hair, skin, you have everything you hate going on right now.' "

Daniels added, "Out of the corner of my eye I saw her putting on blush, and I said, 'Bitch, what is this?' "

"I grew up in that neighborhood, knowing that girl," Blige said. "I was that uncertain until my late 20s. I had never dealt with being molested as a child. Finally, like Precious, I decided I could not live like that -- empty and nothing."

"I didn't cry until right at the end," Winfrey said, "when the words came on the screen: For precious girls everywhere."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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