What it's about:
Shirley Adams is a single, unemployed mother left with the 24-hour care of her son who was left a quadriplegic after he was shot during a gang-related shootout near their home in Mitchell's Plain on the Cape Flats. The film follows her daily struggles as she tries to keep her son healthy against unimaginable odds.
What we thought:
Simply put, there hasn’t been a South African production of this calibre to be seen on the big screen for a long time. Shirley Adams is pure cinema – it's intense, transcendent, heartbreaking and utterly engrossing and will leave its imprint on your brain for a long time.
There is no doubt that Denise Newman is a national treasure. Her work over the course of her long and illustrious career speaks for itself, and as the Shirley of the title she is a marvel as she navigates the despair and repressed anger of a woman who has no choice but to watch her life happen to her, rather than control it herself.
And there really feels like there is no way out for Shirley. She diligently and lovingly sees to the daily needs of her invalid son Donovan – performing all the menial tasks from cooking their spare meals, making sure he receives his medication and physical therapy, and embarrassingly for Donovan, giving him his daily sponge bath. The camera follows Shirley around like a perpetual observer, perched on her shoulders and bearing witness to her unimaginable hardship and self-sacrifice.
Making matters worse is Donovan's growing depression. The film opens with Shirley's panicked midnight struggle to rescue Donovan from what appears to be a suicide attempt. It may not have been the first one. As we learn more about Donovan's current situation, we also meet student occupational therapist Tamsin who is assigned to the Adams' case. She sets about trying to help them deal with Donovan's day-to-day care with the requisite enthusiasm, but Shirley's pride and desperate need to maintain control of the little that remains of her life leads to tension and confrontation.
Tamsin boldly suggests to Shirley that Donovan have more fish in his diet. "Does it look like there's any fish in this house?" Shirley spits back at her. This clash of culture and class, for want of a better term, is just another uncontrollable factor in these people's lives. Tamsin can only guess at the Adams' destitution and the prison cell that their lives have come to resemble, and any kind of relief she brings is but a plaster taped over a wound gushing an almost limitless supply of pain and hopelessness.
This is Oliver Hermanus first feature film, which he also co-wrote, and has already shown himself to be a young director of clear and devastatingly confident vision. The story of Shirley Adams had been inspired at age 15 when his sister, working as a trainee therapist, brought home tales of an impoverished family like the Adams. The film has already won numerous awards both here and abroad and for clear reasons: This is riveting, gut-wrenching stuff.
Go and see Shirley Adams. Even if you can't relate to their story, the human story at the centre of this meticulous portrait of a mother is universal. A marvellous achievement for South African filmmaking.