In South Africa we have the story of a girl, Chanda (Khomotso Mankaya), who has to confront stigmas that hurt her small one-parent family, which is led by her mother, Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane). It’s “Life, Above All,” by Oliver Schmitz.
We start when Chanda runs an errand to take care of her youngest sister, Sarah’s, funeral. She died from a plague that no one discusses. Above all, in dealing with life, theirs is a story about survival: how they pay their bills, deal with shameful rumors and the sneers from their neighbors are open questions.
This simple story, about a complicated fight to survive disease and ignorance, both willful and desperate, will show at the Lagoon Cinema starting on August 5th. This story is interesting, beginning too slowly, and getting and giving us its bearings about half-way through.
Chanda, headstrong and critically thoughtful, lives in a provincial, barely educated culture that’s more invested in religion and superstition than in education. She succeeded in school until her family’s burdens, especially Sarah’s death, began to weigh on her. She stands-up for her mom’s health, and stands up to the rumors, deadbeat dad and her traditional family’s scorn, and superstitious neighbors who disdain her.
The plague finally takes the steam out of Chanda’s mom, who is moved away, out of view of gossip mongers. After what seems like weeks without parents, Chanda tracks down her mom, having to ignore some neighbors’ misdirection on the way. Chanda’s smart enough to understand that some questions and topics are beyond herself; she needs her mom.
This simple, but gripping coming-of-age story is worth watching.
As with Ree Dolly, from 2010′s splendid “Winter’s Bone,” Chanda must grow-up too early and too quickly, around people for whom education is simply an extra. For her it promises an array of freedoms. She faces a short, but hard journey as she tracks down her mom and needs to suck comfort from that.
Ms. Mankaya’s performance as Chanda is potent; her talent is either natural or her craft so formidable that her nuances and touches make Chanda live, be real. Just as with Jennifer Lawrence’s extraordinary, under-appreciated performance in “Winter’s Bone,” Mankaya her character a similar subtlety.
Broader takeaways: “Life, Above All” is a decent film about a simple family, who must deal with a merciless, taboo disease and neighbors who won’t picture themselves beyond superstitions. These people’s lives are basic. They’re prepared for no questions more ambitious than “how do I feed myself and children?”
One reason to watch Chanda’s and her family story: she is prepared for those ambitions. That’s a different kind of hunger.