By Eric Kohn | Indiewire July 14, 2011 at 1:47AM
Although loaded with dramatic consequence, "Life, Above All" is slight. Set in the outskirts of Johannesburg, the movie follows a young girl faced with a broken family and communal rejection. Her transition from pariah to fierce young adult energizes the story with emotional resonance, but director Oliver Schmitz pushes that effectiveness as far as it can go -- and then keeps pushing, until it becomes shrill.
The reason to care about "Life, Above All" doesn't stem from its bleeding-heart plot, which constitutes a mild act of poorsploitation (the same critique leveled at "Slumdog Millionaire" and other tales that use third-world backdrops for dramatic shorthand). The reason to care is newcomer Khomotso Manyaka, who nimbly shoulders a role that places her front and center in nearly every scene.
As the 12-year-old Chanda, Manyaka appears to be the brain-dead result of familial neglect, further diminished by the chaos surrounding her. While her journey toward hope is a familiar one, Manyaka experiences it with fresh intensity.
In early scenes, Chanda loses her infant daughter to sudden disease, a development that sends her alcoholic father careening through the streets and her mother into a downward cycle of grief. Meanwhile, her sole friend sacrifices their bond by turning tricks on the wrong side of town.
Actually, every side of town in "Life, Above All" is the wrong one; the creaky homes are caked with dust and the residents all look perpetually unhappy. This may accurately represent Chanda's dreary point of view, but it also lends an unfortunate touristic air to the proceedings: Watch Chanda work through her hardships, feel good about it when she succeeds, and therefore feel good about yourself for paying attention.
Faced with superstitions surrounding her child's death, Chandra's mother eventually flees town, leaving the girl to face a paranoid community on her own terms. There's a stronger parable about small-town suspicion and poverty-fueled rage buried in Dennis Foon's screenplay, and Bernhard Jaspar's cinematography injects the setting with a vibrant color palette to reflect the ups and downs of Chandra's life. Sadly, technical competence fails to elevate the experience beyond its most basic trajectory.
Based on the book by Allan Stratton, "Life, Above All" never falls apart, although it comes close with a finale that finds virtually the entire cast implausibly knocking on Chandra's doorstep. Then again, Chandra looks realistically surprised by the sudden onslaught of attention, to the extent that she not only transcends the movie, but saves it.
Schmitz ends with a close-up of Manyaka's face and lets the music swell, while her eyes prove more affecting than any of the plot particulars. In those final seconds, "Life, Above All" finally comes alive.
criticWIRE grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Sony Pictures Classics picked up the film several months ago and clearly has strong expectations for it. Reviews have been decidedly mixed, but it stands a good chance of doing solid business due to the heartwarming hook, which should help with word-of-mouth. It opens this Friday in New York and L.A.