In a parallel universe of socially conscious dramas, there exists a movie in which a staid white British family moves into a lively community of black Jamaicans. After some initial mistrust, the Jamaicans find themselves moved, even ennobled by the uptight aloofness of their new neighbors. The youngest Brit mesmerizes the rude boys next door with his collection of soul-free, pathetically unhip pop, and the mother teaches the warm, affectionate Jamaican men how to repress their feelings in clenched neurosis. Soon the entire block is living in tight-assed, stiff-upper-lipped harmony.
Ours, though, is the world of Wondrous Oblivion, which in outline follows a well-worn problem-drama path: A lively Jamaican family moves into a resentful white working-class British neighborhood, offering friendship and a glimpse of a happier, less buttoned-down life to the staid folks next door. But if writer-director Paul Morrison's film traces a predictable arc from racial unease to acceptance, it's often winning and sometimes tough-minded in the details.
A family of Polish and German Jews displaced by the Holocaust to South London, the Wisemans are themselves outsiders, something their snooty neighbors never let them forget. "Not all immigrants are alike, I'm sure," coos hateful Mrs. Dunkley (Mary Cunningham) to timid Wiseman matriarch Ruth (Emily Woof), a former child bride abashed by motherhood, semihostile surroundings, and the stern, stoic presence of her older husband Victor (Stanley Townsend).
In his room, 11-year-old David (Sam Smith) nurses his obsession with cricket. Reduced to manning the scoreboard at his upper-crust boys' school, David longs to see real action on the cricket team. The chance arrives when he looks out his window and spies his controversial new neighbors: a relocated Kingston foundry worker, Dennis Samuels (Delroy Lindo), whose first order of business is to turn the narrow back garden into a cricket court for his daughter Judy (Leonie Elliott).
The patchwork of backyard gardens gives Wondrous Oblivion an oddly rosy, almost fairy tale feel which has the unfortunate side effect of making the neighborhood's simmering racism seem like something that happened long ago, distantly remembered. The setting is the indeterminate 1960s: A newsreel announcer mentions the 1960 cricket championships, but when Dennis and Judy become David's trainers, a montage charts his progress at the wicket to Dandy Livingstone's 1967 ska classic "Rudy, a Message to You."
The selection signifies the movie's good intentions. When the Specials covered the song in the late 1970s, it added fuel to Britain's short-lived Two Tone movement, whose interracial bands tried to bring down boundaries between black and white by fusing loping Jamaican beats with Britpunk energy. Two Tone could also describe Wondrous Oblivion itself which not only vacillates between innocuous fancy and real menace, sometimes awkwardly, but also maintains a rather nervy balance between a light coming-of-age drama for children and a darker, more adult story of deferred passions.
As David spends more time with Dennis and Judy, drawing suspicion and outright threats from the bigots on the block, his neglected mother watches her new neighbor in an erotic trance. Morrison stages the growing attraction between Ruth and Dennis in terms of the charged, gradually declining space that separates them, from a brush of bodies during a kitchen mishap to an aching slow dance at a secret ska outing. (This sexy but implausible scene Ruth and married Dennis would risk dirty-dancing in public with both their communities watching? seems to have been lifted straight out of Far From Heaven, faux Douglas Sirk lighting and all.) The lack of privacy that makes the neighborhood a hotbed of gossip and unrest gives their moments of fleeting contact an edge of real danger. Meanwhile, David's emerging cricket prowess makes him popular with his prep-school buddies, which forces him to make a choice between their company and Judy's a test he fails, badly.
This sequence and its repercussions give Wondrous Oblivion a moral heft and insight far beyond its simplistic melodrama. Part of growing up is making mistakes that can't be taken back, only lived with: The way Smith's David sinks face-down into his bed afterward evokes the crushing weight a child feels the first time he realizes some actions have consequences that can't be undone.
Teaching David what's cricket, in every sense, and awakening Ruth's libido and gallantly refusing her attempted seduction is a lot of magic for one Magic Negro, and the role of Dennis as written remains stubbornly idealized. But as Delroy Lindo plays him, Dennis has a coiled anger that shows only in glimpses. Ruth and David begin to watch the family next door through veiled windows, peering at a domestic warmth that seems alien: Something about Lindo's unguarded bearing in these glimpses suggests a person and a world closed off not just to their view, but to the movie's. Maybe in some parallel universe, there's a version of Wondrous Oblivion told from the viewpoint of Dennis and Judy in which we learn that, for the characters on their side of the fence, the condition of the title doesn't exist.
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