'Mama's not feeling well," says young Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka) in the opening minutes of Life, Above All, expressing the first quiet understatement in a movie filled with euphemisms.
What matters most in this sad, sobering movie is not what anyone says; it's what goes unsaid for most of its running time. About an hour and 10 minutes pass before anyone is brave enough to utter "AIDS," the illness afflicting mama Lillian (Lerato Mvelase) and a few other characters in their battered South African township.
The syndrome progresses slowly, familiarly, but without much attention to the medical details: Lillian limps, grows thin, and develops purple lesions. Director Oliver Schmitz and screenwriter Dennis Foon (adapting the Allan Stratton novel Chanda's Secrets) are more concerned with the underlying social disease that plagues Chanda and her gentle mother, the stigma that prompts neighbors to glare and friends to refer to AIDS as "this other thing," or "influenza," or preferably nothing at all.
Despite the affirming title, Life, Above All has very few moments of soaring optimism to buoy the plot, and not much beyond a brief party scene with a cute boy to suggest any kind of happiness for Chanda.
Two elements give the film life: Bernhard Jasper's exquisite cinematography, which captures dusty vistas and troubled eyes with the same expansive frankness, and the young Manyaka, a 12-year-old newcomer who moves from scene to scene with unflappable grace and maturity.
That's not to say she seems like a practiced actor. At times, a trace of amateurishness creeps into her gestures. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. In some ways it enriches her performance, drawing attention to her youth - Chanda's youth - and the impossible tasks ahead of her.