The plot of 'no-good manboy set on steep learning curve by the accidental acquisition of a child' isn't new: Adam Sandler grew up for Big Daddy and Tom Selleck went ga-ga in Three Men And A Baby. Imagine those set-ups filtered through the urban grit, combustible casting and verve of City Of God, though, and you'll get a sense of Gavin Hood's British/South African adaptation of Athol Fugard's 1959 novel.
Tsotsi ("thug") has already set festivals buzzing. And it lives up to that pre-release prattle because director Gavin Hood douses its hood-flick huffing and nappy-stained narrative with the stench of something real. The use of a pumping Kwaito soundtrack and the street patois of "tsotsitaal" balance style with the substance of authenticity. Likewise, the use of grainy, widescreen cinematography isn't merely dazzling; instead, it vividly renders the setting's almost surreal social divisions by capturing the contrasting extremes in one frame.
As for the inevitable extremes in Tsotsi's volatile character, smart scripting and subtly used flashbacks ground them without sentimentalising him. Even the impact of his sudden babysitting duties convince. Why? Because it's not cooey, men-are-crap-with-nappies fluff. Instead, he flaps at insects infesting the nipper's noggin before holding a mother, Miriam (Terry Pheto), at gunpoint in an attempt to get the tyke fed.
A lot of responsibility is heaped on a largely inexperienced cast but they carry the baby intuitively. Indeed, the semi-pro Chweneyagae is so focused that a whole unspoken script seems to unravel in Tsotsi's intense eyes. Likewise, the supports suggest layers, from the way Pheto conveys Miriam's confused sympathies to the stoic desperation of the other mother, Pumla (Nambitha Mpumlwana), to get her kid back.
Tsotsi's Damascan transformation may seem too Hollywood for some, but a nicely open-ended conclusion means that not everything is resolved neatly by the end. Indeed, far from settling for some gangster-sized grandstanding or sprog-flick sap, Hood and his cast tease out social and psychological weight from this stylish thriller. Even at the story's extremes, that tangible sense of conviction carries it home.
From its punchy but controlled direction to its ferocious lead performance, Tsotsi feels as tender and true as it is tough and tense.