A dark drama with rays of hope

Life Above All

on July 16, 2011 by Pam Grady
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Life is already hardscrabble for Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka), a young girl growing up poor in a small South African township; when tragedy rocks her family, gossip and local superstition leave her with no place to turn. Oliver Schmitz's adaption of Alan Stratton's young adult novel "Chanda's Secrets" was South Africa's entry in last year's foreign-language Oscar sweepstakes and a veteran of Cannes, Toronto International, San Francisco International and other film festivals. This poignant coming of age drama personalizes South Africa's AIDS crisis and swims against the tide of summer blockbusters in its theatrical release as Sony Classics hopes to capitalize on strong word of mouth among fans of thoughtful, emotionally resonant storytelling.

Not yet in her teens, Chanda is already growing up fast. Her infant sister just died; Lillian, her mother (Lerato Mvelase), is ill; her stepfather is a drunk; and her surviving younger siblings have become her responsibility. The pressures on her multiply when villagers begin to suspect what's really wrong with Lillian is AIDSon this justification the town shuns the entire family. As circumstances worsen, Chanda is determined to hold her family together, despite the danger and sacrifice that entails.

Horrifying depictions of the ravages of AIDS, child prostitution and the random violence of the villagers are balanced against scenes of great tensionas when Chanda and her best friend Esther (Keobaka Makanyane) run the gauntlet of truckers who want to bed them, or when Chanda stands her ground against her neighbors.

It is a dark drama to be sure and it does carry with it a whiff of disease-of-the-week melodrama, yet there is also transcendence in the tale; as bleak as the film is, it is not without hope. Schmitz cast his film well, especially Manyaka. This is her screen debut and it is a spectacular one. She radiates heart and strength and makes clear that, despite what she is facing, Chanda is not going to be life's victim.

Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Cast: Khomotso Manyaka, Lerato Mvelase, Harriet Manamela, Keaobaka Makanyane Keaobaka Makanyane
Director: Oliver Schmitz
Screenwriter: Dennis Foon
Producer: Oliver Stoltz
Genre: Drama
Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material and some sexual content.
Runtime: 100 min.
Release Date: July 15 NY/LA

 

Tags: Khomotso Manyaka, Lerato Mvelase, Harriet Manamela, Keaobaka Makanyane Keaobaka Makanyane, Oliver Schmitz, Dennis Foon
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