With present-day Hollywood little more than a factory of comic-book- hero adaptations, fantasy-novel rewrites, and paint-by-number romantic comedies, sometimes it takes a foreign film to truly reset one's perspective. And from its opening shot—of the forlorn Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka in a beautiful debut)—it's apparent that Life, Above All is going to be something powerful. Life concerns Chanda, who lives in a shabby township outside of Johannesburg, South Africa. AIDS is rampant, as are fear and ignorance. (Residents say things like "I hope she burned their sheets," in reference to family members of those who've died from the virus.) The disease is referred to as "the bug."

Chanda's infant sister has just passed, her bereaved mother is incapable of handling the family's affairs, and her father is a drunk, so all responsibilities quickly become Chanda's charge. (The first time we see Chanda's father's face, she finds him passed out in a bar with blood streaming down the side of his head. "He beat a stone against his head to get the demons out," she's told. "Not hard enough!" she shouts, rifling through his pockets for her sister's funeral money, which he'd stolen.)

Chanda's best friend, whose parents have fallen to AIDS, is banished to a shed behind the house by her relatives who've taken over the residence. (A 2010 UNICEF report puts the number of such South African orphans at 1.9 million.) Later, she resorts to prostituting at the local truck stop to support herself, where she's kidnapped and raped after being told, "I've got the bug, and I'm gonna give it to you." After the rape, Chanda is the only soul who will help her friend—society would just as soon see her stoned to death. Chanda's solemn defiance keeps you glued at every gloomy and inevitable turn.

You've always known about the AIDS epidemic in Africa, but you may have never put a face to it. And because Life isn't a film made for Westerners, it doesn't require the happy ending that Westerners expect in their relatively trouble-free lives. It's difficult to watch this and then go back to your bullshit day with your bullshit concerns. Life is by no means a cheerful film, but you will leave the theater a different person. recommended