Life, Above All is something of a blunt instrument, but that doesn’t minimize its crushing impact—this fictional story of the prejudice faced by AIDS-infected people in rural South Africa could wring tears from a stone. Much of that effectiveness is due to a wrenching turn by first-timer Khomotso Manyaka as a 12-year-old staggering under an enormous burden. South Africa is thought to have one of the highest rates of AIDS and HIV infections on the continent, but Life, Above All depicts how fear and a lack of education about the illness have combined with superstition and religion to create an environment in which people are so terrified of what their neighbors will say or do, they hide or refuse to acknowledge their condition right up until it kills them.
Manyaka plays a spiritual sibling to Jennifer Lawrence’s stoic Ree in Winter’s Bone, another young girl fighting for her family’s survival amid a watchful but far-from-welcoming community. Manyaka’s stepfather is a wayward drunk, and her mother is constantly exhausted in a way it’s becoming impossible to keep attributing to the recent death of her youngest child. (Though the specter of AIDS looms over the film from the beginning, denial and dread run so deep that no one mentions it by name for much of the film.) Worse, Manyaka’s best friend (Keaobaka Makanyane, a sprite of a girl with a wizened, too-wise face) is a living cautionary tale, an orphan of the disease whose remaining family members make her live in a shack behind their house because she’s “dirty.” When she falls into prostitution, it’s because everyone assumes it’s what she’s already doing.
This is a tremendous, sometimes excessive, amount of misery to fit into one feature, and Life, Above All (adapted from the YA novel Chanda’s Secrets, by Canadian writer Allan Stratton) can’t accommodate it all—Manyaka’s issues with school, for instance, feel like they should have either been filled out or dropped entirely. But when its focus narrows onto Manyaka and her mother (Lerato Mvelase), their deep mutual affection and the terrifying sacrifices they’re ready to make because of it, the film sings, becoming a moving tribute to love holding fast against suffering. The ending, which offers a hint of relief, is unfiltered, frankly unbelievable melodrama, but something grimmer and more measured would be intolerable after everything that comes before.