Based on a young-adult novel, the picture places us squarely in the perspective of Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka), a smart and determined 12-year-old girl living with her mother and two half-siblings in rural South Africa. The opening minutes set the tone for what will follow.
A pensive Chanda goes by herself to a business. We don’t know what she’s there to buy, but the salesman is surprised she’s unaccompanied. Leading her into a dark room, the salesman assures Chanda he has “all kinds of models for infants.” He switches on the light to reveal a storeroom of tiny wood coffins. Soon enough, we learn that Chanda’s baby sister has died. Chanda has to make arrangements because her mother, Lillian (Lerato Mvelase), is wasting away from AIDS. Lillian is shunned by her neighbors and a drunkard husband who accuses her of having killed their child with “poisoned” breast milk. The agonies mount. Chanda’s best friend (Keaobaka Makanyane), already deemed the town slut, spirals into a life of prostitution.
Meanwhile, Chanda’s mother grows thinner and weaker, leaving the girl to endure the disapproving stares and whispered judgments of the community. If “Life, Above All” reads like bloated melodrama, rest assured that director Oliver Schmitz infuses the dire goings-on with quiet, understated urgency. It can be heart-wrenchingly sad, but Chanda and her family reject self-pity. Schmitz receives stunning help from cinematographer Bernhard Jasper, who bathes the ramshackle South African milieu in a kind of desolate splendor.
Best of all is Manyaka. The first-time actress admirably carries the movie, her face a mix of pain, tenacity and quiet acceptance. The film is at its most affecting when it allows the camera to linger on her expressive face. In fact, the only real stumbles of “Life, Above All” — and they’re not insignificant — come when it widens its focus to include the vantage point of other characters. Chanda’s story is what registers above all.