Oliver Schmitz's Life, Above All has its heart in the right place, but it quickly begins to bleed at the edges, and soon these edges come to dominate the film's core. The establishing shot finds Chanda (first-time actress Khomotso Manyaka), our steely eyed, nervous-lipped heroine, caught in the stark deep blackness of a shabby shelter, away from Johannesburg's magnificent sunlight. All of 12 years old, this sturdy yet unconfident girl has arrived at a coffin maker's cabin, having been tasked with picking out a casket for her baby sister. Her mother is too overwhelmed by grief to accompany her, and her father is busy flitting away their funeral funds on alcohol and boozy women.
Returning from her grim voyage, Chanda stops off at school to inform her teacher she'll be out the next few days, and then proceeds to chit-chat with her only friend, a truant orphan who takes up hooking at a local truck stop to scrape by. Despite ample evidence that similar horrors are indeed routine in Johannesburg's many destitute neighborhoods, the piling on of these issues feels cheap, lazy, and exploitative. Ironically, by the time the narrative winds toward its key revelation (that Chanda's sister died of AIDS-related complications), even the most earnest viewer is numbed and emotionally desensitized by the unfathomable bleakness already overcrowding the screen.
In a misguided effort to universalize its story (and to make it completely thorough, covering all of South Africa's misfortunes), Life, Above All employs the more-is-better hodgepodge strategy of filmmaking popularized by the similarly flawed Precious and Crash. Compounding its characters' problems over and over again may bluntly illustrate the depth of their predicament, but the cost is too great: With each layer, the audience loses its ability to empathize with Chanda, the gap between their life experience and hers becoming too great to bridge. The self-conscious gravitas of the proceedings doesn't help matters either; the film cycles easily between despair, moments of stoicism, and grudging acceptance, but it's almost proudly humorless, and by extension, less than human throughout. The few requisite moments of levity—an aborted classroom flirtation, a flash of a dance party, a bawdy joke literally cut short—seem a rushed afterthought at best. Instead, Schmitz relies on an oddly tidy device to hint at his characters' inner tenderness: Nearly every other scene ends with a tight hug, a moist eye, and an empty reassurance along the lines of, "I will always be your friend."
Life, Above All exhibits plenty of good intentions: the cast is all-black and mostly local, the shooting was entirely done on-location, and the final reel's message is ultimately redemptive, if so candied that it's hard to swallow. The greatest injustice of the film's overwrought approach is the resulting dilution of its central narrative—a genuinely devastating account of the effects of AIDS on a South African society mostly unwilling to acknowledge the disease's existence, never mind accept and deal with its prevalence. The stigma associated with the epidemic and the role of quack doctors and rampant illiteracy in abetting its spread are brought up only briefly to make way for the rest of the cluttered storyline. The film's ambitions are admirable and grand (South Africa deserves a locally made feature that tackles its tricky relationship with AIDS), but unfortunately it gets carried away. Sometimes the best way to tell a large story is to keep it small.