Good-natured, multi-character snapshot of contemporary South Africa depends on the warmth and charm of its indigenous cast to flesh out script’s formulaic situations. An animal rescue center forms the nucleus around which a French West African astronomer, a tangoing veterinarian, a college student/mother/maid and a troubled blond animal lover orbit and intersect, while self-serving black ministers and abusive white nabobs get their comeuppance. Although by now routine, the intertwining of separate story strands is solidly structured, and the different mini-narratives resolved in unsurprising yet satisfying ways. Crowd-pleasing, feel-good exercise in love and tolerance could click in arthouse and indie markets.
“Hope” plays as a more old-fashioned, less offbeat version of “Italian for Beginners,” with the animal center substituting for the language course as a shelter for assorted, troubled souls. Kate (Debbie Brown), founder and head of the animal rescue mission, has serious abandonment issues. Her father left her long ago and her pathetically age-defying mother, layers of jewelry vying with coats of rouge, is inching toward her fifth wedding.
Involved with an unseen married man, Kate initially avoids the shy attentions of the local vet (Morn Visser), who has recently lost his wife to cancer.
Meanwhile, Jean-Claude (Eriq Ebouaney), a distinguished refugee astronomer seeking political asylum from the Congo, is forced to work in dead-end jobs: The least demeaning is working with the animals at the shelter. Yet, as portrayed by the gifted, charismatic Ebouaney (the title character in Raoul Peck’s “Lumumba”), Jean-Claude can not only enchant children and make women fall in love with him at first sight, he can even turn a snarling “white dog,” trained to attack blacks, into a tail-wagging household pet.
A young black widow Lindiwe (Nthati Moshesh) frantically juggles going to college, working as a maid, and raising her spirited son (Kamo Masilo). Neither her college professor nor her boss nor her mother is willing to cut her the least amount of slack, their demands impossibly high, their expectations depressingly low.
Rounding out the cast of characters is a Muslim couple (Juanita Adams and David Isaacs), grappling with culture-tangled problems of infertility that threaten their eight-year marriage. The picture is bleak, particularly for the black characters, trapped in poverty and unemployment and forced to contend with every form of residual racism.
First-time helmer Mark Bamford, co-scripting with wife Suzanne Kay, deals in amiable cliches. Yet scenes like the one where Kate wakes up alone in a motel room, her lover a no-show, while back at the ranch the dogs shake their empty food bowls or otherwise express their displeasure at her absence, come off with flair, humor and unforced pathos, due in part to the excellent human and canine thesping but also to Bamford’s fine sense of timing.
Larry Fong’s lensing maintains pic’s upbeat tone, finding pleasing compositions in location shot shantytowns without overly prettifying them. Other tech credits smartly follow suit.