In the tough, worthwhile South African drama "Life, Above All," we see a story about a harsh childhood told from the child's perspective. It sees the good and evil in the world through the eyes of Chanda (magnetic Khomotso Manyaka), a bright 12-year-old growing up poor in a small town outside Johannesburg. Drug use and AIDS are inescapable facts of daily life. Already you may be tempted to skip ahead to a review of lighter fare. Perhaps you should read on, because this is a heartening story of resilience told without false uplift. It is hopeful without being mawkish, realistic but not oppressive. Here we see a girl who surely will face a life of struggle, but who demonstrates the mettle to make a go of it.
The film begins in the middle of a chain of events. Chanda's infant sister has died, and her mother can't afford a coffin. It's up to Chanda to visit the undertaker and make arrangements. Chanda's worthless, boozing stepfather has infected her mother with AIDS, and in their superstitious community, the stigma (locals consider it a mark of devilish sinfulness) is more feared than the illness itself. Chanda's best friend (Keaobaka Makanyane, a fine young actress whose face is chiseled with suffering and deep sorrow) is an orphan of the disease who supports herself through truck-stop prostitution.
So far, so grim, yet there's reason to believe that Chanda may escape the snares fate has laid for her. Her immediate family is collapsing, but there are goodhearted adults in her life. Her teacher is concerned, her busybody neighbor, Mrs. Tafa ("Hotel Rwanda's" Harriet Makanyane), is ignorant but well-intentioned, and even the undertaker who provides the infant coffin for Chanda's sister is a complex mix of goodwill and venality. Most important, Chanda is nobody's fool. When Mrs. Tafa takes Chanda's ailing mother to a quack herbalist, the girl reads the framed, English-language sales awards that illiterate adults take for diplomas, and calls him to task.
We've seen some indomitable young women recently in "True Grit" and "Winter's Bone." Chanda must fight ignorance and social prejudice, which can be harder to beat than gunmen, but her fight is no less dramatic.