The scourge of AIDS haunts this superbly acted South African drama, one with so much initial restraint (a character calls the largely unmentioned disease "divine punishment") that you wish it didn't tidy itself up into explicitness. Our Winter's Bone--like teen heroine, Chanda (Manyaka), caught up in the whispering of a rural community after her family's newborn dies mysteriously, is a natural magnet for audience affection. Taking the reins, Chanda organizes the funeral, chases down a wayward stepdad, and then hunts for the truth behind her mother's sickness and disappearance.
Pride and girl power chafe against the starker realities of health, education and poverty, an admirably complex position from which to make a movie. If Life, Above All, adapted from Allan Stratton's 2004 best-seller Chanda's Secrets, rubs the wrong way, it's via the lushness of the filmmaking: somehow too pretty for such a tough-minded tale. There's a ferocity to these beaten-down faces, landscapes that require no additional swaddling: When Chandra's vulnerable friend Esther (Makanyane), falling into the sex trade, wobbles by on a bicycle, your heart aches to know where she's going. Still, the film is built in such a way that its dynamic cast simply eases us toward the most obvious destination. The sincere director, Oliver Schmitz, injects too much movie into his movie; life (above all) would have been enough.
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