'Oblivion' rubs raw racial hurts

Special to The Times

Set in working-class London at the dawn of the 1960s, "Wondrous Oblivion" filters the era's cultural clashes through the starry eyes of a young Jewish boy.

Although his parents -- a middle-aged tailor and his young, pretty wife -- fled to England to escape the Nazis, 11-year-old David Wiseman (Sam Smith) seems to have been raised in a bubble. Obsessed with cricket, and apparently blind to all else, David is hopelessly outmatched at his posh public school and channels his energies into swapping trading cards of his favorite players.

A man at his father's shop pronounces his hard-nosed bargaining tactics "very Jewish," but David seems too thrilled by his new acquisitions to notice the slur. His obliviousness is wondrous indeed, and perhaps a touch implausible.

The Wisemans are regarded skeptically by their native-born neighbors, at least until an even greater anomaly moves in next door: a family of Jamaican immigrants, headed by Delroy Lindo's booming patriarch, Dennis Samuels. Suddenly, David's mother is a "good English woman," one who might intercede with the new neighbors' Jewish landlord and have them oh-so-delicately pushed out of the neighborhood.

David's father advises him that the Samuels are "not our kind of people," but when Dennis installs a cricket net in his backyard, David is entranced, soon hopping the dividing wall between their houses for a few lessons in the finer points of batting. That Dennis happens to have a button-cute daughter, Lilian (Yasmin Paige), the same age as David, forecasts other lessons on the horizon, as well as the inevitable sticky wickets to come.

Aiming for the tough-minded nostalgia of John Boorman's "Hope and Glory," writer-director Paul Morrison catches both the innocence of childhood and its unconscious cruelty. When David's white school friends, acquired through his newly honed cricket skills, come over to play, David nervously turns Lilian away at the door, acting out impulses he is old enough to feel but too young to understand.

For all its bright-hued nostalgia (the cricket greens are practically incandescent), "Wondrous Oblivion" edges up to hard truths, most powerfully expressed in Lindo's towering performance. At first, Dennis is merely a smiling facilitator of David's coming of age, but as the story darkens, the character gains tragic stature, his distant eyes reflecting the dashed hopes of a new life. Almost single-handedly, Lindo takes a pleasant but glib story and brings it firmly down to earth.

MPAA rating: PG for thematic material, some violence, sensuality, language including racial remarks, and brief smoking by minors. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Town Center, 17200 Ventura Blvd.; Encino (818) 981-9811; Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills (310) 274-6869; One Colorado, 42 Miller Alley (inside plaza, Fair Oaks at Union), Pasadena (626) 744-1224.

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