Two years ago, a drama with a seemingly forbidding subject — an illiterate teenage girl, pregnant with her father’s child and hellishly abused by her drug-addicted mother — won over critics, audiences and the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The film was Precious. Now comes Life, Above All, which deals with the tragedy of AIDS in South Africa, as seen by a 12-year-old girl named Chanda. At the end of its world premiere at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, critics cheered like schoolkids, giving it a 10-minute standing ovation. Beginning Friday, Americans will have the opportunity to cheer both the film and Chanda, played by the luminous Khomotso Manyaka, who, in her first role, illuminates the soul of this wise child with power and dignity.
Chanda, who lives in a lower-middle-class town near Johannesburg, is a serious, studious girl, and the one responsible person in a family that is dissolving and decaying in front of her. Chanda’s baby sister Sarah has just died. Her mother Lilian (Lerato Mvelase), is ill with an unspecified disease, and suspected of poisoning the child with her breast milk. Her stepfather Jonah (Audrey Poolo) is a wandering, philandering drunk. Her best friend Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), an outcast in the township, is suspected of selling her young body to the local truckers. Madame Tafa (Tinah Mnumzana), the woman next door, heaps her disapproval on the whole family. Like the Old Testament Job, Chanda struggles under the weight of all these calamities, but she doesn’t buckle. She shoulders the burden and carries on: buying a coffin for Sarah, searching for her missing stepfather, trying to get medical attention for her mother, bringing Esther to live in her home, and mothering her younger half-siblings.
(Watch TIME’s video “The Dangers for Asylum Seekers in South Africa.”)
The secret horror destroying Chanda’s family — neighbors call it “the disease” — is AIDS. The father passed it on to his wife, the wife to the baby Sarah, and all three are mortally afflicted. The townspeople know to condemn AIDS sufferers but not how to fight the plague. They try to ward it off with the magic and superstition they have used for centuries. They consult a shamaness, who produces a snake from a woman’s body; they visit a “doctor,” who is actually a pharmaceutical salesman; they sing a gospel chorale; finally they exile the sick to die out on the plains. When Chanda presses Madame Tafa about Lilian’s disappearance, the older woman says, “We hid her where the disease won’t harm the family.” The local hospital is overwhelmed with patients; no room for another AIDS victim. So Chanda goes on an odyssey to find, help and perhaps heal her mother.
The movie — based on Canadian novelist Allan Stratton’s young-adult award-winner Chanda’s Secrets, scripted by Detroit-born novelist and playwright Dennis Foon and directed by Oliver Schmitz, a white South African — is in a way a Frank Capra vision of a devastating situation. In true Capra fashion, Chanda must undergo the miseries and public condemnation of a Jefferson Smith or George Bailey, before enjoying a (not entirely probable) reprieve from the townsfolk who ostracized her. But Chanda doesn’t really need communal validation; self-doubt rarely hobbles her resolve. She believes in herself, and in the saving value of her friendship with Esther.
Schmitz uses the wide-screen frame smartly, often to isolate Chanda from her adversaries, occasionally to create dynamic intimacy between Chanda and those she loves and wants to save. The director and his splendid cast assure that this tale about a strong little girl fighting to keep her family alive and together has both high art and a big heart, audience appeal and gut impact.