The trio of hopeful South African villagers making their way by train to Johannesburg in Akin Omotoso’s electric cautionary tale “Vaya” don’t just lose their innocence in the big city, they have it practically ripped from them.
Nhlanhla (Sihle Xaba), looking to make his way in the world, eagerly awaits a job promised by his well-connected cousin; cautious young man Nkulu (Sibusiso Msimang) has been tasked by his mother to retrieve his recently deceased father’s remains, as their custom dictates; and watchful teenager Zanele (Zimkhitha Nyoka) is taking her younger cousin Zdowa to live for the first time with the girl’s mother Thobeka (Nomonde Mbusi), a singer, and her protective dude Madoda (Mncedisi Shabangu).
In each case, naivete about hidden, unscrupulous motives puts these sympathetic travelers in situations that threaten their lives, forcing them to make difficult choices. “Vaya,” which eventually reveals a unifying link to its strangers’ arcs, originated from a project that collected real-life hardship stories from jobless South Africans whose quest for a better future outside of their rural upbringings didn’t go as planned.
Although “Vaya” is plenty watchable as a commercial melodrama energized by its performers (especially the magnetic, star-in-the-making Nyoka), Omotoso’s fleet pacing and Kabelo Thathe’s marvelously textured cinematography, it also shrewdly avoids convenient, well-trod moralizing about small towns versus urban centers. “Vaya” contends there are mistakes to blindly glorifying either when following our dreams.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: Starts Friday, Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills