I saw a preview for Life, Above All when I went to see Woody Allen's latest misogyny-fest, Midnight in Paris. For the record, I mostly hated Midnight in Paris--and should review it as the sexist piece of crap it is--but I'm trying to find examples of positivity in the film industry these days. The only truly great thing about attending Midnight in Paris was discovering the upcoming Life, Above All (now playing in New York and L.A.) and the upcoming Take Shelter--holy crap that's a freaky trailer.
Michael Shannon scares me.
Anyway, the official Web site synopsizes Life, Above All as follows:
Just after the death of her newly-born sister, Chanda, 12 years old, learns of a rumor that spreads like wildfire through her small, dust-ridden village near Johannesburg. It destroys her family and forces her mother to flee. Sensing that the gossip stems from prejudice and superstition, Chanda leaves home and school in search of her mother and the truth. Life, Above All is an emotional and universal drama about a young girl (stunningly performed by first-time-actress Khomotso Manyaka) who fights the fear and shame that have poisoned her community ... Directed by South African filmmaker Oliver Schmitz (Mapantsula), it is based on the international award winning novel Chanda's Secrets by Allan Stratton.
The trailer itself gets me teary-eyed. I watched it and realized how rarely mother-daughter relationships grace the screen in a way that doesn't portray the mother as smothering and ridiculous and usually insane, and at the very least, just ... shitty. (See: Black Swan, Carrie, Mommie Dearest, Phoebe in Wonderland, Gone Baby Gone, Fish Tank, and the upcoming Ansiedad. Add screen portrayals of the Mother-in-Law to the list, and it's a disturbing clusterfuck of epic proportions.)
While a few reviewers argue that Life, Above All ignores the government's responsibilities in the HIV/AIDS crisis in South Africa (like the film failing to mention former president Thabo Mbeki's sympathies with AIDS denialists in the 00's), I'm excerpting from several positive reviews that focus on the interpersonal relationships in the film:
By Liz Braun:
By Nora Lee Mandel:
Life, Above All is an historical snapshot of the AIDS crisis in Africa and an indictment of sorts of the government bungling that allowed the epidemic to overwhelm South Africa. The culprits (ignorance, poverty, big pharma, religious and political leaders, etc.) are not so much the focus; the point of this quiet, heartbreaking drama is all those children left to cope, especially the orphans.
By Manohla Dargis:
Rather than focusing on the usual corrective lessons on the transmission and treatment of HIV/AIDS, the family’s struggles play out within systems of traditional care and limited modern medical facilities that are strained to the breaking point. Chanda rails against the stoic comforts of religion and receives only discouraging advice at an overcrowded clinic. Her illiterate and exhausted mother falls prey to the greed of a charlatan doctor, a demon exorcism, and horrific neglect by her revengeful sister, who has not forgiven Lillian for her flouting of tribal marriage traditions for the sake of love.
By Mary Corliss:
Chanda’s silence is unnerving, as is the absence of tears, and while her calm conveys a preternatural strength of character it also suggests a lifetime of pain. No child, you think, should have to pick out her baby sister’s coffin. But she does, taking in the horror of the funeral home and its metal table without flinching and then pushing forward, still dry eyed, still determined, taking on life with an appealing (and enviable) toughness and grace that make this difficult story not just bearable but also absorbing. As the weight of the world bears down on her slender frame, she becomes the movie’s moral compass and its authentic wonder: the child who is forced to be an adult yet remains childlike enough to feel real.
By Alison Willmore:
Two years ago, a drama with a seemingly forbidding subject — an illiterate teenage girl, pregnant with her father's child and hellishly abused by her drug-addicted mother — won over critics, audiences and the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The film was Precious. Now comes Life, Above All, which deals with the tragedy of AIDS in South Africa, as seen by a 12-year-old girl named Chanda. At the end of its world premiere at last year's Cannes Film Festival, critics cheered like schoolkids, giving it a 10-minute standing ovation.