Well into the South Africa-set drama "Life, Above All," a startling thing happens: A teenage girl attends a block party. She dances, laughs and flirts. For a rare evening, she's not carrying the weight of her elders' denial — specifically, about AIDS.
Thirteen-year-old Chanda is a young woman of exceptional poise and strength and possesses wisdom well beyond her years. The teachable-moments framework surrounding her might be simplistic, but her portrayal by Khomotso Manyaka is one of the most striking film debuts in recent memory.
As the film opens, Chanda is negotiating funeral details for her baby sister and chasing down her irresponsible stepfather. In her relationship with her sweet-faced mother, the reversal of parent-child roles is clear from the start. But Chanda's troubles extend beyond the family to the aggressive ignorance and fear that keep her middle-class township's rumor mill grinding. (In the widescreen frame, doorways and other vertical divisions often set her apart from her surroundings.)
Unbowed by stigma, she's clear-eyed and compassionate, sticking by her ostracized best friend (a memorable Keaobaka Makanyane), who has been orphaned by the disease whose name no one will say aloud.
Adapting the young-adult novel "Chanda's Secrets," director Oliver Schmitz has made a film that's less didactic than the source material, if still intent on delivering a neatly wrapped message. Medical personnel are depicted working with unbelievable efficiency and generosity, and Chanda's stoicism grows wearing.
But Manyaka gives the character a gaze so true it could only open hearts and minds.
"Life, Above All." MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material and some sexual content. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes. At Laemmle's Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles. Beverly Hills; and Culver Plaza Theatres, Culver City.