From “Heidi” and “Harold and Maude” to Takeshi Kitano’s “Kikujiro,” there’s been no shortage of odd couplings of the very young and very old. But seldom are these pairings as provocative as in “Lucky,” an emotionally resonant portrait of contemporary South Africa as well as a love story between a black AIDS-infected orphan and the ornery Indian woman who comes to his rescue. A performance by the venerable Jayashree Basavaraj could overcome the inherent obstacles of language and geography, and specialty release seems a possibility.
Both of writer-helmer Avie Luthra’s protagonists are irascible characters. Lucky (Sihle Dlamini) is far from lovable, but has little reason to be: His mother has returned to their Zulu village in a coffin, leaving him nothing but an audio cassette, which he doesn’t have the equipment to play. With nowhere else to turn, the headstrong 10-year-old sets off for Durban to find his uncle Jabulani (James Ngcob), with whom his mother apparently left money for his schooling. As it turns out, the uncle has spent the money and isn’t inclined to feel too bad about it.
It’s in this ethnically diverse and divided city that Lucky meets Padma (Basavaraj), a resolute, ill-tempered old woman whose attitudes about race and segregation are rooted in the South Africa of old; she instinctively fears blacks and wants nothing to do with them. Lucky’s attempts to use her cassette player so he can hear his mother’s dying message are met with a broomstick to the face. But a friend at a local restaurant advises Padma about the upside of AIDS orphans: The government will pay a monthly stipend if you take one in. So the old woman gives the boy food and a place on her terrace to sleep. She still refuses to let him in her house, though she’s not averse to the money.
In other words, no one’s particularly likable in “Lucky,” particularly Jabulani, who, when he learns of Padma’s scheme, threatens her, robs her and cuts her with a knife. But she and Lucky both persevere, as her avarice eventually gives way to affection, and his hunger for a parent leads him to Dumisani (Vusi Kunene), whom Lucky believes to be his father.
Padma’s reformation provides the heart of the film, and it’s a fairly predictable dramatic development; young Lucky may not be particularly adorable, more determined than endearing, but you know the old woman is going to change her tune. But helmer Luthra, a psychiatrist as well as a filmmaker, handles it in a manner both delicate and real. One extended scene, in which Padma and Lucky have a conversation in their respective languages, is extraordinarily touching.
Tech credits are mixed. D.p. Willie Nel’s palette seems more morose than it needs to be, but Phillip Miller’s score is buoyant.