*** (out of four)
No 12-year-old should bear the weight on Chanda’s (Khomotso Manyaka) shoulders: She alone picks out a coffin for her just-deceased baby sister and must deal with an increasingly sick mother, a drunken stepfather, a disrespectful half-sister and townspeople who blame Chanda’s mom for the baby’s death. This small South African village is driven by fear and suspicion—whatever works to stay away from anyone who might have AIDS.
The buzz: Manyaka has never acted before. Ever. This is a pretty big stage to make your (exceptional) debut, as South African director Oliver Schmitz (“Paris, Je-T’aime”) adapts Allan Stratton’s novel, “Chanda’s Secrets,” and requires a lot out of his child actors. This is a story in which kids must summon the strength to make adult decisions even when their elders don’t.
The verdict: Illegitimate doctors and terrible living conditions. Constant theft and the threat of being shamed by having rocks thrown at you. “Life, Above All” depicts these realities in a devastating world without pushing too hard on its message-filled grief, largely avoiding a score and letting the story’s sorrow speak for itself. Several characters are underwritten and the film doesn’t feel plotted fully enough to be especially perceptive about this disease- and poverty-ravaged society. Yet be it through a young girl forced to prostitute herself or a dying young man dishonored by his family, the movie (and its earnest but straightforward title) powerfully advocates for treating everyone like a human being. There are a lot of tears in “Life, Above All,” and they’re all earned.
Did you know? Chastised for her short skirt and the possibility that people could see her panties, Chanda’s friend, Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), responds that she’s not wearing any. Feel better, complainers?
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