07/14/2011 11:58 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

In Life, Above All , Chanda & Esther Are 'Little Women' for the 21st Century -- No Special Effects Required

It wasn't too far along into the film Life, Above All, adapted from a book called Chanda's Secrets by Allan Stratton, that I was reminded of Winter's Bone, a superb indie adapted from the eponymous novel, which also takes on some of the bleakest subject matter imaginable, but leaves you with a sense of awe in the end. Life introduces us to another brave, young classical heroine, who moves heaven and earth to keep her family together and remains a steadfast friend to another girl, who has been scapegoated by their community.

Although the settings -- Elandsdoorn, South Africa and the Missouri Osarks -- couldn't be farther apart, both narratives are driven by the girls, in this case, twelve-year-old Chanda -- mature beyond her years -- struggling against poverty, superstition, secrets, and the shame and fear associated with a pandemic that dare not speak its name.


A poignant portrait of the bond between daughter and mother, left to right are Khomotso Manyaka as Chanda and Lerato Mvelase as Lillian. Photo: © Dreamer Joint Venture 2010. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Chanda's (Khomoto Manyaka) infant sister has just died, which is a loss too heartbreaking for her mother, Lillian (Lerato Mvelase), to accept. While Lillian continues to cradle her baby, telling her two younger children she is sleeping, Chanda makes the funeral arrangements, from choosing a tiny coffin -- one of the film's many piercing, cinematic images -- and negotiating with the undertaker to calling her mother's extended family from her neighbor, Mrs. Tafa's (Harriet Manamela) telephone. Chanda is a study in how a child steps up to deal with brutal realities that adults all around -- in her family and entire community -- turn away from. She is a symbol for truth, love, and loyalty -- organizing the funeral is just the beginning of many acts of courage.


Khomotso Manyaka as the irrespressible, 12-year-old heroine, Chanda. Photo: © Dreamer Joint Venture 2010. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Nothing can be taken away from the adult members of this exquisite ensemble cast, but the two juvenile, first-time actresses, who play Chanda and Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), will floor you -- not just with the delivery of each heartfelt line, but with every close-up of their singularly expressive faces. While a line can be drawn from Jennifer Lawrence's Ree Dolly in Winter's Bone, one can go back further to Haley Mills as Kathy in Whistle Down the Wind (1961) to understand just how masterfully Manyaka plays Chanda.

Makanyane's Esther -- in a keen observation made by my viewing companion -- has a whisper of Judy-Garland-like pathos. So if your heart's been broken in the past by any number of Garland's juvenile roles, Esther's performance is sure to crush you.


The brave, "little women" in Life, Above All, wise beyond their years, personify loyalty and friendship. Left to right: Keaobaka Makanyane as Esther and Khomotso Manyaka as Chanda.Photo: © Dreamer Joint Venture 2010. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

You'll be entranced by the faces of Harriet Manamela as Mrs. Tafa and Lerato Mvelase, who plays Chanda's beloved mother Lillian, two seasoned actresses from stage, film and television. Aubrey Poolo as Jonah, Chanda's grieving, shattered stepfather, also delivers a poignant, supporting performance.


Harriet Manamela as Mrs. Tafa, Lerato Mvelase as Lillian and Khomotso Manyaka as Chanda find joy in song.Photo: © Dreamer Joint Venture 2010. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Chanda and Esther are "little women," for the 21st Century, and carry this film the way iconic, classic Hollywood actresses did in film adaptations of 19th-Century novels by Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, and Charlotte Bronte -- studies of prejudice, poverty, and orphan abuse from another century. However, Khomotso Manyaka and Keaobaka Makanyane didn't have the luxury of distance from their characters or subject matter -- they are both natives of the township of Elandsdoorn where the film was shot in the local dialect of Sepedi. Their performances bring a sense of universality to the devastating impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in southern Africa, which is responsible for hundreds of thousands orphans, child prostitution, and denial and prejudice on the part of its superstitious and proud middle classes, which are crises in the here and now.

Director Oliver Schmitz, his sensitive producer, screenwriter and cinematographer, and the local actors and crew bring Stratton's novel and characters to life with great authenticity. Schmitz avoids blatant, political messages (and to paraphrase director Pedro Almodovar from his blog about John Huston's direction of Deborah Kerr in Night of the Iguana) choosing instead to tap cinema greatest strengths -- the emotional power of the close-up and two-shots revealing intense relationships between characters -- and allows his actors' "disarming naturalness" to unfold. I can't say it better than the Spanish master, "there's nothing better than letting an actor act... no digital effects, no frantic editing that can compare to the intensity of the actor's face."

Life, Above All opens on Friday, July 15 in Los Angeles and in New York City at the Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinema.