In my recent review of A Serious Man, I mentioned humankind’s ability to reason as what separates us from the animals. But perhaps that’s not just it. Maybe what being human is really about is our ability to define ourselves. Maybe what human nature is designed to embody, create and thrive upon is the search for and maintenance of that self-definition—of the ability to answer those eternal questions: who are we and why are we here? Put more simply, maybe life—and being human—is just about figuring it out.

And enduring.

And perhaps the real test for each of us is how we act—how we endure—when faced with adversity. How do we survive? How do we figure it out?

Hollywood has always loved to make films about humans overcoming adversity, and not just the 2012 variety. Films such as Slumdog Millionaire and The Pianist show one kind of human adversity, the kind where people have little choice about their circumstances and still find ways to overcome—and survive—without complaint or self-pity. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the inhabitants of films such as The Hours, Grand Canyon and Crash, people so engrossed in their own petty dramas that their view of adversity is a fender bender.

And then there’s Precious. Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire is neither an American tragedy nor a great uplifting film about the human spirit. It is, instead, a brutal story about instinct, survival and about what makes us all tick—that inherent human drive for self-definition.

That’s not to say that Precious isn’t about adversity. It’s all about adversity. It’s about an overweight and abused teenager in late 1980’s Harlem, Precious, played very well by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, who, nearly illiterate but with an interest in math, pursues a chance to get an education at an alternative school, much to the dismay and disapproval of her abusive and hateful mother whose only use for her is as a resource for government welfare checks. Precious’ sad tale doesn’t end there, as her depressing circumstances pile up one after another, yet, through it all, she forges ahead, waking up, going to school, and daydreaming of a life where she’s beautiful, loved and respected—none of the things that she feels she will ever be in this one.

Precious has an inherent knowledge of what it takes to survive, despite her lack of belief in herself, any self-confidence or support system. This survival instinct is what drives and motivates her and it is what kicks in when the brutality reaches the worst depths. The human spirit is a nice thing to champion and those who praise this movie are all about that, but this movie isn’t about the strength of the human spirit. This movie is about the strength of the human will. The will to survive. There is a point in this film where Precious’ instincts just take over and it’s not a choice anymore as to what she is going to do. It’s something she just has to do. She must take over her life from those who have defined her until that point and claim what’s hers. It is truly a powerful and riveting—albeit hard to watch—scene in a powerful and riveting movie.

What makes this film the powerful and riveting film that it is lands squarely on the conflict between Precious and her mother, played by Mo’Nique. And that conflict would not nearly be as powerful without Mo’Nique’s absolutely shattering performance. She plays her mother as hateful, hurtful, conniving, spewing, vile, cruel, heartless and abusive. And yet there is an absolutely heartbreaking honesty there, a realization on our behalf that this person is so broken, so empty, so hollow inside, that she truly knows no other way to be. This ability to portray an absolute monster without pretense or façade but with actual layers and texture and perhaps even construct and understanding is a feat of monumental achievement. Mo’Nique’s performance here is the best acting I’ve seen on screen since Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. And while she is excellent throughout the film and steals every scene she’s in, what she does in the final scenes of this film is nothing short of an acting master class. Only one word can capture this performance: staggering.

Director Lee Daniels does a good job with the rest of the cast, particularly Sidibe, who is making her feature film debut. Sidibe is such a unique presence on the screen and plays Precious as both vulnerable and resilient but not pathetic. Surprisingly enough, there are no real “poor me” moments, just honest reflections on life, a credit to screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher and his adaptation of the novel by Sapphire.

The movie does slow down a little bit when we meet Precious’ well-intentioned teacher, played a bit too perfectly by Paula Patton, and it gets dangerously close to becoming another “good-hearted inner-city teacher saves the lost teenager” movie, but, thankfully, the classroom scenes are used mainly as welcome relief for the audience from the anxious, painful and depressing scenes between Precious and her mother which make up the rest of the film. As they must be for Precious too.

Patton is fine though, as is the rest of the supporting cast, most notably—I can’t believe I’m actually typing this—Mariah Carey as a welfare worker. Carey is straightforward and unfettered in her performance and surprisingly poignant and down-to-earth.

Despite the stunt casting and “Oprah Winfrey/Tyler Perry Presents” title card, Precious is a far cry from being pop culture mainstream entertainment for the masses. This film is hard. It’s hard to watch, it’s hard to swallow and it’s hard to come to terms with. But, in the end, it is worth every second.