Life, Above All opens with young teenager Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka) shopping for an infant-size coffin, and things don’t exactly get better for her from there. Oliver Schmitz’s drama about the effects of AIDS on one family in a small town in South Africa is so bleak that it often feels like it’s wallowing in misery, piling tragedy after tragedy upon poor Chanda, who is the steadfast glue that holds her family together. Chanda’s mother Lillian (Lerato Mvelase) has AIDS, which is what killed Chanda’s baby sister, and Chanda’s drunken, deadbeat stepfather is suffering from the disease as well. Chanda’s supportive best friend Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane) works as an underage prostitute after being abandoned by her family. And thanks to stigmas and superstitions, it’s nearly impossible for Chanda to get medical care for any of these people, since AIDS is still seen by many as highly infectious and a curse from the devil.
Working from a novel by Canadian writer Allan Stratton (with a screenplay by Canadian Dennis Foon), Schmitz (who is South African) brings a sometimes heavy-handed tone to the story that can seem like a mildly condescending outsider’s perspective. It’s especially troublesome in the incongruously feel-good finale, which values lesson-learning over the perhaps overly harsh realism that has come before. But many of those bumps get smoothed out by the wonderful performance from Manyaka, who carries the movie on her young shoulders just as Chanda carries all of her family’s burdens. Even when it seems like the filmmakers are putting her in an unfair spot, Manyaka brings grace and empathy to everything Chanda does, eliciting sympathy and understanding in spite of the movie’s own awkwardness.