Little One a Heartrending, Near-Perfect Drama

When life is "cheaper than cigarettes," compassion becomes all too costly. It soon joins diamonds and caviar in the club of unthinkable luxury, and anyone who gives it away freely is immediately suspect. That's the fate of Pauline (Lindiwe Ndlovu), a train station snack vendor who finds a bloody, unconscious girl in a field and persists in caring for the child despite her husband and the hospital staff's bafflement and disapproval. Writer/director Darrell James Roodt's Little One, which was South Africa's entry for the 2012 Best Foreign Language Oscar, is a heartrending, near-perfect drama that focuses on two mysteries: who left that girl for dead and, more important, how to help her regain a normal life. But the film's protagonist is Pauline, a woman whose quick wits are most evident in her creative kindness. The nurses and the concerned but gruff detective (Mutodi Neshehe) enlist her help in convincing the Little One, Vuyelwa (Vuyelwa Msimang), to speak and to survive. Later, Pauline is hope incarnate: She brings Vuyelwa sweets, a superhero cape, a trip to the zoo. When the girl frightens herself by looking at her disfigured face, smashed by her attackers with a rubber hammer, Pauline devises a strangely perfect gift: a used brown paper bag with two eyeholes. Yet Pauline's no Pollyanna. She's a touch naive, but she has her own reasons for making sure Vuyelwa finds a family and a home. Her motivations have to do with the air of imminent violence the two breathe in, day in and day out. With her wide build and broad jaw, Pauline may look tough, but her position as a woman in South Africa forces her to be outwardly docile, especially to her controlling husband, Jacob (Luzuko Nqeto), in their metal-hut home — the film explicitly focuses on the dangers of being female.

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