As the 30th anniversary of the start of the AIDS epidemic arrives, it's instructive to note that, even today, there are still those benighted places - both in the USA and abroad - where simply contracting the disease is still a cause for ostracization and shunning.
In the case of the latter, it's both a moral judgment and a sign of ignorance, fear and even superstition - specifically, the belief that simply sharing the same air with someone who is HIV-positive raises the possibility of infection.
So it is in the South African township depicted in Oliver Schmitz's Life, Above All, opening in limited release Friday (7/15/11). Though AIDS obviously is decimating the population, no one wants to speak the words or acknowledge infection.
That's the case with Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka), an adolescent girl forced to take charge of her family when her mother is left bereft at the death of her infant daughter. Chanda makes the funeral arrangements for her baby sister, steals the money for the funeral back from her worthless stepfather (who is with a new girlfriend, passed out drunk) and alerts the relatives about the death.
But something a neighbor says - and then a harsh allegation from the stepfather - makes Chanda start wondering about her mother, Lillian (Lerato Myelase), and her dead sister, who supposedly died of influenza. No one wants to come out and say it but, in fact, Lillian has AIDS and is slowly dying herself - as is Chanda's stepfather.
The performances in Life, Above All give it its power, rather than its after-school-special plotting. Manyaka, as Chanda, conveys so much with her expressive eyes - fear, shame, anger, intelligence, longing - that it's hard to believe she is an acting novice.
She and Keaobaka Makanyane as her orphaned outcast friend Esther, as well as the film's other children, are stunning in the honesty of the emotions they portray. So, for that matter, is Myelase, as Chanda's mother, battling grief and shame to try to keep her family together in the face of a rising tide of neighborhood hostility and fear - and her own deteriorating health.
The simplistic plot benefits from the fact that this family crisis is seen through Chanda's eyes. We feel the impact as she is forced to cope with adult concerns when she should be getting ready for young womanhood, with the ups and downs that entails.
In the end, Life, Above All features performances that are too good to miss. Like The First Grader earlier this year, this film uses a small story to reveal the world.
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