Tsotsi: Written and directed by Gavin Hood, based on the book by Athol Fugard. Running time: 94 minutes.

Tsotsi, the recent Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film, is currently playing at the Drexel East Theater. The film centers on a young hoodlum (Presley Chweneyagae) from the Soweto township of Johannesburg, South Africa. He goes by the name of “Tsotsi,” which is the local street slang for “thug.”

The story begins with Tsotsi leading a robbery and murder of a wealthy man on a crowded train. Later, he brutally beats a friend who questions the morality of the act and then terrorizes a disabled homeless man, who defies him. During this encounter, Tsotsi realizes the man reminds him of a dog with broken legs and asks why he goes on living. In a flashback, we see Tsotsi’s mother dying of AIDS and his abusive father intimidating him and at one point kicks their dog, breaking his legs. After this meeting, Tsotsi ends up in an affluent gated community where he carjacks a woman arriving home. The woman panics and tries to stop Tsotsi, who shoots her and speeds away. We see the reason for the woman’s panic. Tsotsi discovers a baby in the backseat. Not knowing what to do next, he takes the baby back to his shack. The rest of the film involves him using whatever means he can to care for the baby while the police investigates the carjacking (which has left the mother alive, but paralyzed).

At one point, Tsotsi forces a widowed mother named Miriam (Terry Pheto), at gunpoint, to breastfeed the child. He gradually grows to appreciate Miriam’s maternal instincts, despite her initial reluctance. She tries to persuade Tsotsi to give the child back to the parents, but he refuses. The relationship between Tsotsi and Miriam resembles parental-like cooperation, despite their apprehension of each other. Miriam seems to remind Tsotsi of his own mother, which has a calming influence on him. He even names the baby “David,” which is Tsotsi’s birth name, an indication that the baby is a second chance at the childhood he never had. There are a couple of tense moments in the film. One of them is the scene where Tsotsi and two cohorts raid the baby’s parents’ house for baby formulas and diapers, which ends in a bloody resolution when the father sounds the alarm. The other is the climax when Tsotsi returns to the house with the baby. His moment of indecision leads to a fatalistic standoff with the police.

Tsotsi could have descended into a sentimental “hoodlum with a heart of gold” cliché, were it not for the performance of Presley Chweneyagae. A novice actor, he nevertheless conveys the range of a hardened young man, who is a product of generations of South African apartheid (something the youth there are still feeling the effects of), but also of a frightened youth traumatized by his social circumstances. It is also an unsentimental performance that wisely and instinctively avoids wallowing in the “thug life” as well as phony, maudlin manipulation, regarding his redemption. We do not get the impression that he has completely changed his outlook on life, but we do get a sense of his duality shaped by the economic and humanistic factors. It is because of this that the film works. Terry Pheto also gives a quietly notable performance as the young mother.

Tsotsi does teeter dangerously close to unconvincing melodrama. The director seems to view the events of the film and its impoverished subjects from afar and at times almost pushes the redemption angle to the point of manipulation, but again the performances of the mostly non-professional actors saves the film and makes it more convincing as a social drama.