A striking drama that works cogently off of superstition, ignorance and prejudice with humanistic topicality is set in modern South Africa.
Life, Above All (in bold, clear English subtitles) has the austerity and warmth that reflects an overpowering awareness for everyday life. Its protagonist, 12-year-old Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka), sees the demise of her infant sister and has to assume family duties in a dust-filled village near Johannesburg.
"It takes a village" has a harrowing, here-say resonance as Chanda's ill mother Lillian (Lerato Mvelase) has become greatly debilitated after her loss and has gone away. It doesn't help that baby's father Jonah (Aubrey Poolo) is in a perpetual inebriated state. Chanda has to keep order oblivious younger siblings while dealing with her troubled friend Esther (Kenobaka Makanyane) now living a dangerous life on the streets. And, as Mrs. Tafia, Kenobaka Makanyane isn't the kind of neighbor you would think of as a Good Samaritan.
Dennis Foon adroitly adapts Allan Stratton's novel "Chandra's Secrets" under the delicately, expressive direction of German immigrant-bred Cape Town native Oliver Schmitz. The point-of-view of such an indefatigable, precocious preteen like Chandra who realizes the source of her parents's suffering is intimately presented. Maybe her only flaw is that her high regard for family values has her abandoning an education for a while.
This unsentimental, honest treatment is augmented by evocative lensing from Bernhard Jasper as the entire cast is sensitized to some callous culture relativism. With Chandra struggling for her family, the blatant disregard and folklore can have devastating consequences.
Similar to an equally bleak, yet poignant Winter's Bone, Manyaka is wisely beyond her years with a similar courageous streak employed by that Ozark-based film's breakthrough by Jennifer Lawrence. An un-moralizing, wrenching Life, Above All affirms trust and compassion with subtle authenticity and hopefulness as Chandra's journey proves to be an important one.