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In 'Phat Girlz,' empowerment is entertaining

When movie studios refuse to show films to the press before opening day, it usually means they stink. In the case of ''Phat Girlz," which wasn't screened for critics, I'm convinced it's because the studio didn't see the movie.

This is a disarming and, in its own way, delightful vehicle for its star and executive producer, the comedian and actress Mo'Nique. Who could hate this movie?

Written and directed by Nnegest Likké, in her debut, it's the sort of unvarnished personal journey picture that used to crop up back in the days of the true independent cinema movement of the early 1990s, when black women were telling positive stories about themselves. This one has commercial packaging (lots of nightclub and poolside scenes, and one hilarious round of ''You so ugly" jokes) and some dubious shot-making. But the movie cuts through the frivolity and technical shortcomings and allows Mo'Nique to cry out from her soul.

She plays Jazmin, an exuberant plus-size force of nature living in a taunting size-zero world. While her dreams of fashion-design success languish, she works at a department store with her best friend, Stacey (the outstanding Kendra C. Johnson). Stacey is dowdier and more reserved than her pal, and overweight, too, and she easily gives in to the misery of being fat in Los Angeles, a feeling Jazmin fights to ignore. It's not easy. She can't even order from a fast food joint without getting harassed by the attendant. But when she wins a trip to a chichi Palm Springs resort, things start looking up.

Jazmin, Stacey, and Mia, Jazmin's floozy of a cousin (played by Joyful Drake, a bright comedic actress), check in and within minutes find themselves approached by a trio of Nigerian doctors at the hotel for a conference. These Africans, two of whom are very handsome, worship full-figured women. To them, Jazmin and Stacey are sexy and prosperous, and, for a change, hotter than Mia. But the attention is too hard to believe for Jazmin. She flees her doting suitor, drags the girls home to LA, and locks herself in her bedroom, where she proceeds to hit bottom.

Her private collapse feels like brutally real psychodrama. She attacks her svelte dressing mannequin. She tosses the TV set out the window. She shouts, sweats, and wails in obvious agony in a struggle to love herself. Susan Lucci has never done it better. And suddenly, the movie has turned from a comedy into one of those inspirational mass-market confessionals.

Mo'Nique's raw self-exorcism in that sequence is not becoming of a movie star, but it's perfect for a spokeswoman. And ''Phat Girlz" becomes a touching demand for the empowerment of a disenfranchised social class of women: the big-boned, or thick, as Jazmin puts it. Fine, the movie turns preachy, but if we're going to get a lecture, it might as well be an entertaining one about a prejudice that hides in plain sight and shows no signs of going away. In the eyes of her tormentors, Jazmin might be fat as hell, but she's not going to take it anymore.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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