The smallest feature made by prolific, Hollywood-experienced South African helmer Darrell James Roodt (“Cry, the Beloved Country,” “Yesterday”) is also one of his best. Minimalist tale of a remote-area schoolteacher befriending a gifted girl who wants to learn but isn’t allowed to delivers maximum emotional rewards for auds of all ages. Film’s modest scale makes export a challenge, but pic should travel extensively on the fest circuit, where it will have strong polling power with voting audiences. Specialized tube and ancillary buyers should take note.
In leisurely scenes that set the tone for a yarn that’s all about taking a step back and looking at how life can best be lived, schoolteacher Esmerelda September (Renate Stuurman, the only pro thesp involved) arrives in Riemvasmaak, an isolated town on the outskirts of the Kalahari.
Immediately embraced by locals, she begins teaching a class of adorable moppets and learns that during apartheid, Riemvasmaak’s residents were forcibly resettled in neighboring Namibia. After just the right amount of meeting and greeting, the screenplay introduces the enigmatic title character. A wild-haired girl of about 7, permanently wearing a bright red dress, Meisie (Abrina Bosman) scurries around the surrounding hills and one day sneaks into an empty classroom. Unaware Esmerelda is watching, the girl writes advanced mathematical equations on the blackboard.
Naturally amazed by what she’s seen, the teacher slowly wins the youngster’s trust and discovers that she lives 10 miles away in the hills with her stern father (Raymond Basson), who withdrew her from school to help look after his goats. Naturally, Esmerelda’s plea to have Meisie return to class falls on the father’s unresponsive ears, leaving the duo to set up their own “school” under a tree on the way to the girl’s home.
Easily readable as a metaphor for the renewed hope of previously disadvantaged people in a new South Africa, the film is warm-hearted yet never gooey as the clever young Meisie devours everything she’s taught, and her tutor reconnects profoundly with the dreams and ideals that inspired her to become a teacher.
Outside the utterly charming central story, screenplay is dotted with lovely observations of life in a community full of optimism. There’s humor as well, with a trio of old biddies making a highly amusing fuss about whether attractive young Esmerelda is going to steal their husbands.
Bosman is a knockout. Young thesp had never seen a movie camera prior to filming, and performs with the effervescent confidence of a pro. Her achievement, and indeed that of the entire cast, is made even more impressive by the fact that dialogue was completely improvised. Lenser Andrew Tolmay’s rhapsodic HD photography of ochre landscapes and smiling faces is the standout of a pristine tech package.