The first half of Life, Above All, a Sepedi-language mother-daughter tale set in South Africa, feels entirely powered by heart. Lerato Mvelase plays Lillian, a complex powerhouse of a mother, currently buckled with grief over the death of her infant daughter. Khomotso Manyaka plays Chanda, Lillian’s preteen daughter struggling to pick up the slack and skipping school to make funeral arrangements. These two actresses have the remarkable ability to speak volumes about their lives, the past and the foreboding Sword of Damocles hanging over the household, even when they’re barely looking at each other. It’s an electric palpability that extends to their busybody neighbor, Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Manamela), and their gossiping village.
It soon becomes clear that the infant died of AIDS, and the mother is fading fast, as well. I found myself baffled at the (quite literal) demonization associated with the disease, and the gauntlet Chanda must navigate in search of information, at first, and later, treatment, without ever speaking of that which must not be named. It’s a jolting, puzzling and wholly satisfying way for South African director Oliver Schmitz to propel the plot.
Wonderful moments permeate the heaviness, like when Chanda attends a block party and allows herself to feel like a 13-year-old, or the scene in which she slyly calls out an “alternative medicine” scam artist. (The “degrees” on his wall, she notices, are commendations for the number of products sold, all from the same drug company.) There is also emotional honesty in the film’s portrayal of Chanda’s tortured friendship with the town Jezebel, Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), a plotline that emphasizes with great aplomb the fact that teenage friendship endures the same slings and arrows everywhere, just to varying degrees. Shades of Winter’s Bone come into play, too, in Chanda’s never-ending familial-drama juggling act.
However, Life, Above All loses steam the second Chanda’s mother is shipped out of town; the focus shifts toward the superstition, repression and counterproductive shunning that plagues the village. The film’s scattered pedigree seeps through – TV movie veteran Dennis Foon adapted the script from a YA novel by Allan Stratton – and the second half devotes itself to hammering home a Big Moral Lesson about hypocrisy, friendship and devotion. The score swells as teary monologues take over, which only detract from (and utterly deflate) Chanda’s laser focus.
Still, Manyaka’s performance is jaw dropping, entirely earning the neat little bow that the movie seems determined to put on top of her mission. And it’s difficult to argue with the importance of the subject matter: Since seeing the film, I learned that one African politician claimed he could cure AIDS himself, in a day, using magic. In 2007, a member of South Africa’s Rugby World Cup-winning team stopped his brain cancer treatment after a Nigerian preacher claimed to have healed him by prayer. (The player died last year at 39.)
It’s easy to see part of the African problem as a war between rationality and superstition, but Life, Above All, does better, at least throughout its first half, than showing that war: It shows us a warrior.
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