Lucky: Toronto Review

Tale of an orphan on a mission in urban South Africa achieves poignancy without manipulation.

A classic orphan-meets-loner tale set in and around Durban, South Africa, Avie Luthra's Lucky expands his well-received 2005 short of the same name into a satisfying feature with solid theatrical prospects in U.S. arthouses. Just heart-tugging enough to win the mainstream of foreign film buffs but never close to cloying, it's not unthinkable as an awards contender.

First-timer Sihle Dlamini, who plays the 10 year-old title character, appears to instinctively avoid cuteness: Lucky, whose mother has just succumbed to AIDS as the action starts, is a determined kid who's quickly realizing there's little use in trying to charm unreliable adults, or even to try getting his way with a tantrum. He just moves forward whenever there's an opportunity to be had -- even at the cost of others, as when he steals another boy's uniform to fit in at a school where he's not enrolled.

Determined to get an education, Lucky flees his small village once his mother is buried, landing in the city first with an uncle who proves unreliable. Spying an elderly Indian woman (Padma, played by Jayashree Basavra) in his uncle's apartment building and realizing he needs something she has, he makes contact in a way that provokes the racist Padma.

Chagrined to have overreacted and indignant at the way his uncle treats him, Padma softens somewhat toward the boy. She speaks Hindi and he speaks Zulu, but she manages to help him a bit, getting more motivated when she realizes there'd be a government stipend involved if she took legal responsibility for him.

Self-interest motivates many acts of seeming generosity here, leavening a story that in other incarnations sometimes requires hearts of stone to crack wide open in unbelievably short order. Basavra is wholly convincing as a longtime resident who resents the post-Apartheid influx of blacks and couches her good deeds in vehement condemnation of Lucky's kin. Dlamini can cry when has to, but prefers an unblinking, intelligent gaze, even when confronted with news that rattles his most basic beliefs.

Luthra's plot makes smart dramatic use of the setting's clashing cultures while Willie Nel's handheld camera takes in the run-down environs without being grim. By the time the protagonists care enough about each other to act with real selflessness, nobody will accuse Lucky of being a fairy tale.

Bottom Line: Tale of an orphan on a mission in urban South Africa achieves poignancy without manipulation
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production Companies: Out of Africa Entertainment/How Town Film Productions.
Cast: Jayashree Basavra, Sihle Dlamini, James Ngcobo, Vusi Kunene, Brenda Ngxoli.
Director: Avie Luthra.
Screenwriter: Avie Luthra, Tanya Welz.
Producers: Lance Samuels, Christopher Wilmot.
Director of photography: Willie Nel.
Production designer: Chantal Carter.
Music: Phillip Miller.
Editor: Josh Levinsky.
No rating, 100 minutes.