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Carjacking must weigh heavily on the minds of Oscar voters. Not only did a plurality of them select the preposterous Crash as 2005’s best picture, but they also chose Tsotsi as the year’s best foreign film. The latter, an earnest account of a young South African hoodlum’s mellowing, is hardly the best of the five nominees, but unlike Crash, it’s not the worst, either. Although it tends toward the schematic and sentimental, Tsotsi benefits from the memorable performances—or simply presences—of an expressive young cast, as well as from its vivid portrayal of a South African class divide that isn’t necessarily about race. Opening with a craps game that efficiently symbolizes shantytown life, the movie follows its title character—whose name simply means “thug” in the local patois—as he victimizes various residents of Johannesburg and Soweto. Although they range from rich to poor, all of them, like Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae), are black. When another gang member, Boston (Mothusi Magano), expresses regret over a commuter-train robbery that left a man dead, the disagreement triggers Tsotsi’s fury. The hooligan abandons his cohorts and wanders into an upscale neighborhood. There, he jacks a car, shooting its driver and speeding away before noticing the baby in the back seat. Barely more than a kid himself, Tsotsi decides to keep the boy, thus somehow making amends for his own brutal childhood, which is sketched in fleeting but harrowing flashbacks. Tsotsi has no child-care skills, of course, and is soon forcing a neighbor, a young widow with a baby of her own, to breast-feed his adoptee at gunpoint. Working from an Athol Fugard novel that was set in the ’50s—but, chillingly, seems entirely contemporary—writer-director Gavin Hood depicts the entwined innocence and corruption of premature-adult killers, a strategy that recalls Fernando Meirelles’ City of God. That movie was more complex and more accomplished, but Tsotsi has a similarly powerful sense of place—and of the infuriating juxtaposition of poverty and wealth in a Third World megalopolis. Anger and confusion play across Chweneyagae’s face—which is utterly persuasive even if his character’s transformation isn’t. —Mark Jenkins