In its ambitious attempt to be a fanciful coming-of-age tale and a socially conscious story about racism and segregation, Wondrous Oblivion doesn't quite gel on either count. Writer-director Paul Morrison's modest British movie still boasts moments that sparkle, but it never quite materializes into a satisfying whole.
Set in South London in 1960, Wondrous Oblivion focuses on 11-year-old David Wiseman (Sam Smith), a shy, awkward Jewish boy whose zeal for cricket is exceeded only by his incompetence at it. With father Victor (Stanley Townsend) toiling day and night in his garment shop and mother Ruth (Emily Woof) busy weathering the catty remarks of bigoted neighbors, David mainly entertains himself with games involving his cricket-player cards.
Although Victor and Ruth Wiseman immigrated to Great Britain in an effort to escape the Holocaust, they are outcasts in their working-class neighborhood, the victims of casual anti-Semitism. The Wisemans get a respite of sorts when a black Jamaican family, the Samuels, moves in next door. Suddenly, the Jewish family is no longer the lowest wrung on the social ladder, but rather the next to lowest. The Wiesmans, while sympathetic to the plight of their new neighbors, don't want to attract more harassment by befriending the Samuels. David and his little sister are instructed to steer clear of the Jamaican family.
But then David watches on as Dennis Samuels (Delroy Lindo), the family patriarch, erects a cricket net in the backyard and teaches the sport to his daughter, Judy (Leonie Elliott). Victor scoffs that Mr. Samuels is trying to acclimate into British society ("An Englishman's love of cricket only goes so far," muses Mr. Wiseman), but David is enchanted. Soon the boy joins the Samuels' afternoon cricket sessions, enthralled to have Mr. Samuels as a private coach. And thanks to the magic of a movie montage or two, David is soon batting and bowling with the best of 'em, earning a coveted spot on his school's cricket team.
Meanwhile, Ruth Wiseman is itching for her own private lessons with Dennis Samuels. Feeling neglected by her workaholic (and considerably older) husband, the woman strikes up an increasingly flirtatious friendship with the affable Mr. Samuels.
A lot of themes percolate here -- perhaps too much.
Wondrous Oblivion's splashy color scheme, lively ska soundtrack and occasionally wistful indulgence (the cricket players on David's trading cards can walk and talk, Harry Potter-style) nicely accommodate the coming-of-age saga in which David learns inevitable life lessons about true friendship and whatnot. But then the filmmakers complicate matters, and not in a positive way, with the subplot involving Ruth and Dennis' dalliance.
Morrison is clearly sympathetic to the adulterers-in-waiting, evidenced by a sequence in which the pair engages in a bit of dirty dancing at a local club. Victor presumably has all but driven Ruth in the arms of someone else because he works all the time (Morrison calls Victor's character "rude and overbearing" in the commentary track); we're not really sure why Dennis has the itch to step out on his wife.
Whatever their ostensible reasons, the characters are not fleshed out enough to make the betrayal more understandable. Moreover, Morrison approaches the infidelity with a rather cavalier treatment. When David and Judy see their respective parents getting their freak on out on the dance floor, naïve David assumes Mr. Samuels is teaching his mom how to bat (insert your own "wood" joke here). The wiser Judy simply takes David's hand and leads him away with a nonchalant expression that seems to say, "It's OK, papa's just seducing your silly little mother."
Presented in 1.78:1 widescreen anamorphic, Wondrous Oblivion boasts marvelous image quality. The picture is clean and vivid, with realistic skin tones and rich blacks.
Viewers can select Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround or 2.0 Stereo. Both are crisp, clear and free of distortion. Nevertheless, you might find yourself constantly adjusting the volume, a byproduct of actors occasionally mumbling and whispering in hushed tones.
A commentary track by writer-director Paul Morrison is reasonably informative, especially about the creative process and the script's evolution. The filmmaker delivers his remarks, some of which are rather self-congratulatory, in a curiously low and somber tone. Wondrous Oblivion: Behind the Scenes (9:44) is a standard-issue featurette that includes on-set interviews with cast and crew.
Rounding out the extras are a theatrical trailer and previews for The Motel and Rolling Family.
Modestly entertaining but slight, Wondrous Oblivion is equal parts coming-of-age story and socially conscious melodrama – neither of which is especially distinguished. The actors do a fine job, particularly Lindo and Smith, but they are tripped up by what ultimately is a formulaic storyline.