South Africa-set “Beat the Drum” is a handsome, well-crafted family drama combining familiar village-boy-journeys-to-big-bad-city narrative with some forceful pleading for AIDS education. Earnest effort from producer-scenarist W. David McBrayer has decent export potential — though educational content is very much tilted at African auds, with an estimated 600 deaths per day amongst the HIV-infected populace (gauged at 20%) in S.A. alone.
His Zulu village devastated by a “curse” that is leaving only the very old and very young alive, the newly orphaned 9-year-old Musa (a rather inexpressive Junior Singo) bids farewell to grandmother and wee cousin. He sets out on foot to get help from the uncle who left some time ago for work in Johannesburg, hoping to do the same himself so the impoverished family can buy a new bovine. He stows away on the rig of initially hostile trucker Nobe (the excellent Owen Sejake). Latter soon develops a fatherly interest, though his own growing family obligations prevent taking the boy in.
In Johannesburg, Musa quickly becomes just another homeless kid roaming the streets, washing windshields for spare change. Less scrupulous if not yet past salvage is Letti (Nolunthando Maleka), the teenage girl he befriends. But she disappears one day, and searching for his uncle proves a needle-in-haystack proposition.
Meanwhile, Pieter (Clive Scott), the gruff, heart-hardened Afrikaner owner of Nobe’s trucking company, undergoes a transformation when his only son dies of AIDS, spurring him to do more to promote safe behavior among his employees — especially since long-distance truckers in South Africa are known for frequenting roadside prostitutes. It’s up to Musa to convince his native villagers that the “curse” wasting them is no supernatural phenom, but a preventable viral one.
Script gets a bit heavy-handed in punching this message across, with lecturing speeches for both Pieter and Nobe, plus an ending a tad too idyllic to ring true. But helmer Hickson does a solid job playing down the preachier angles, encouraging naturalistic perfs and focusing on smaller, affecting bits of human drama. As a consequence, the cautionary AIDS material comes off all the stronger in more offhand moments.
Pic is attractively scored and lushly shot, with countryside sequences (shot in KwaZulu-Natal) often spectacular. Other tech and design aspects are first-rate.