In the opening minutes of Life, Above All, a semi-excitable coffin salesman in rural South Africa tries to sell a 12-year-old girl (Khomotso Manyaka) a casket for her infant sister. His mild energy is the brightest spot of the movie. Not only has Manyaka lost her kin, the funeral money has been stolen by her stepfather (Aubrey Poolo) to score drugs. Her mother (Lerato Mvelase) is inconsolable and mysteriously exhausted. Her school is a disaster. The local hospital is worse, with impenetrable lines and questionable service. Her best friend (Keaobaka Makanyane), whose parents died of AIDS and whose family ostracizes her, turns to prostitution, with predictably grisly results. And this is before it’s confirmed that her mother is actually dying from an AIDS-related illness.
What keeps Life, Above All from being merely another bleak-o-rama programmer, joining the likes of Mouchette and Lilya 4-Ever in piling atrocity upon atrocity until it becomes self-parodic, is not a flicker of hope, which when it belatedly comes, in the final minutes, is wholly unconvincing and unearned. It’s how thoroughly and believably it conveys the troubles that plague a specific part of the world. South Africa could stand in for many parts of Africa, but despite having German producers, it feels lived-in and knowing. Corruption and misery ooze from most every pore of this small town, located just outside Johannesburg, none more obviously than the way in which locals perceive AIDS with a deadly mix of fear and superstition.
The word itself isn’t even deployed until over an hour in, and people like Manyaka’s nosy, prissy next-door neighbor (Harriet Lenabe) make extra-sure no one dares think about it, even claiming that her own teenage son actually died during a robbery when everyone knows that’s a lie. The widespread treatment of AIDS as a curse, viewing it spiritually rather than medically, is a delusion that will keep it alive, Life, Above All argues. No matter how OTT the film goes in its grueling depiction of human suffering—and it frequently goes there—it’s kept in check by its realistic roots and Manyaka’s performance as the most resilient girl on a hopeless mission against Boschian horrors since Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone.