By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin July 15, 2011 at 4:10AM
One of the year’s most striking and memorable performances is given by a 12-year-old girl who never set foot in front of a camera before she was chosen to play the leading role in Life, Above All. This moving adaptation of Allan Stratton’s award-winning novel Chanda’s Secrets was directed by Oliver Shmitz, who was raised by German parents in South Africa, where the story takes place. Using natural locations instead of sets, and professional actors as well as locals, he provides a tangible portrait of—
—a rural village where ignorance, prejudice, and superstition go hand in hand.
Chanda (so well played by newcomer Knomotso Manyaka) is an adolescent girl who has to shoulder adult responsibilities following the mysterious death of her baby sister. As we get to know her mother, her drunken stepfather, their bossy neighbor, and the other people in her life we come to understand the real subject of the movie: AIDS, and the enormous stigma it carries.
Life, Above All is essentially a character study—of a family, an amazingly strong-willed girl who sees what the grownups around her cannot, and a society that would rather bury its head in the sand than face an admittedly difficult reality. Yet the film is not—to use a popular expression—a downer, because young Chanda provides hope and inspiration.
At a time when so many movies are about nothing at all…and others sacrifice dramatic substance for mere good intentions, Life, Above All manages to tell a compelling story and give us food for thought at the same time. Such a film deserves applause, support, and most of all an audience.