It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Oliver Schmitz's "Life, Above All" earns the tears it inspires. The film is about deep human emotions, evoked with sympathy and love. It takes place entirely within a South African township near Johannesburg, one with modest prosperity and well-tended homes. It centers on the 12-year-old Chanda, who takes on the responsibility of holding her family together after her baby sister dies.
As the film opens, Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka) visits an undertaker to examine the inexpensive coffins on display. This is a task no 12-year-old should ever have to endure. But her mother, Lillian (Lerato Mvelase), is immobilized by grief and illness and her father by drink. The next-door neighbor, Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Manamela), helps her care for two younger siblings.
Suspicion spreads in the neighborhood that the real cause of the family's problems is AIDS, although the word itself isn't said aloud until well into the film. Its absence forms a fearful echo chamber — reflecting South Africans' own insistence, until recent years, of denying the reality of AIDS. A family linked to the disease by rumor or gossip is ostracized, which is why Mrs. Tafa facilitates Lillian's "visit" to distant relatives.
Chanda does what she can to care for her siblings, attend school and keep up appearances. Her own good heart is demonstrated by her friendship with a schoolmate named Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), who is forced into prostitution to earn the funds for survival. It goes unspoken between them that this could lead to AIDS for Esther herself. The South African tragedy was that former president Thabo Mbeki persisted in puzzling denial about the causes and treatment of AIDS, so many who suffered and died of AIDS need not have. This contributed to a climate of ignorance and mystery surrounding the disease, which only increased its spread.