Shame is a powerful motivator. In this South African drama, it's what keeps an increasingly frail woman from getting tested for HIV and what turns her family and neighbors against her. For all the seeming uplift of its title, Life, Above All is a punishing look at a community terrorized first by AIDS, second by groupthink. What makes it bearable but also beautiful and stirring is the central performance by the preteen, first-time actor Khomotso Manyaka. She plays 12-year-old Chanda, a smart, unsentimental kid forced to take on adult responsibilities when her baby sister dies in infancy and her parents fall to pieces.
Death shrouds the inhabitants of the insular township. Chanda's birth father is long dead. Her bossy next door neighbor, Mrs. Tafa, has lost a son. Her best friend Esther (the magnetic, elastic-limbed Makanyane) is an orphan. But AIDS is rarely referred to by name; instead, the citizens speak of "demons," perpetuating a devastating cycle of superstition and misinformation handed down generation to generation. In its third act, Life, Above All takes a bit of a dip into la-la land, in terms of believability – how precisely is an impoverished family supposed to have afforded an ambulance and hospice care? – but that doesn't diminish the emotional impact of Manyaka's performance and the idea that courage can be infectious, too.