Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka), the fearsomely brave 12-year-old girl from a South African township in "Life, Above All," is overburdened with woe. Her baby sister has just died; her mother (Lerato Mvelase) is mysteriously sick and getting sicker; her stepfather, wasting away, is a vagrant alcoholic; and her two younger, uncomprehending siblings are in her care.
To the film's credit, for all that she has to contend with, Chanda never comes across as a saint or an icon. She is, above all, a 12-year-old girl. Her resilience is her only weapon of survival in a hostile community where the spread of AIDS, which is what her mother has, is regarded by the township folk as divine punishment.
Director and coscreenwriter Oliver Schmitz, who was born in Cape Town and has worked in films and television since the mid-'80s, has an unerring eye for capturing the sorrow in these situations: the way Chanda and her mother hold each other, the look on Chanda's face as she surveys the human wreckage around her. He doesn't linger over the compositions, though. His emotionalism is highly principled.
In some ways, Chanda's single-minded pursuit of justice is a South African counterpart to what Jennifer Lawrence's character in "Winter's Bone" endured. Manyaka doesn't have Lawrence's acting chops – she takes direction a bit too obviously – but she has a formidable presence that transcends mere craftsmanship. She is particularly expressive in her scenes with Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), a classmate who has become a prostitute and probably also has AIDS.
Although "Life, Above All" is based on the bestselling 2004 novel "Chanda's Secrets," by Allan Stratton, it never seems "novelistic" or stagey. The fluidity of Schmitz's technique reflects a world in which tragedy and uplift are inextricably commingled.
• Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material and some sexual content.