World Cup host South Africa gets a (different kind of) cinematic close-up
The movie, which we saw on the Croisette, focuses on a teenage girl beset by a host of problems (a series of father figures who've abandoned her, a mother who may be dying) while she must simultaneously care for her younger siblings. The film's got a bit of a "Winter's Bone" feel to it -- there's a strong, wise-beyond-her-years teenage girl fighting the odds in a poor rural area, protecting children even as she is, in many ways, still a child herself (though the film is not the tour de force that "Winter's Bone" is).
Our Cannes viewing had actually made us wonder, given all the ways South Africa is in the news, if a major American company might take a flier on it. If the ESPN telecasts and other news coverage awaken a larger curiosity about country, this is a movie that satisfies it; "Life" is much more of a foray into social realism than many more politically minded South African films have been.
Still, there's an unavoidable problem with putting out this movie. The film's portrayal of rural and working-class parts of the country is hardly glowing; many of the adults are downright harsh or so preoccupied with their own survival that they have no time for the children. Schmitz, who based the film on a popular young-adult novel, also casts a depressing light on the powerful specter of AIDS among the country's poor.
All that grittiness makes it a more interesting film, but it could also present a marketing incompatibility, flying in the face of the feel-good aura hovering over South Africa, literalized by those incessant notes of harmonic folk music accompanying all showings of the World Cup logo.
("District 9," of course, became a big hit despite hardly being a Chamber of Commerce-approved piece of work, but that movie came out well before the World Cup and put many of the social issues behind a genre cloak anyway.)
Sony Classics hasn't committed to a release date for "Life" yet. That may be simply because it needs to find a place for it on the always-crowded specialty-release calendar. But it could also be wise not to push a film about the unseen problems in South Africa when everyone is still hearing the World Cup music.
— Steven Zeitchik
Photo: "Life, Above All." Credit: Cannes Film Festival.
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