British writer-director Paul Morrison (Solomon & Gaenor) goes for wistful coming-of-age sweetness with this fascinating but slight racial drama. As Jews in the early 1960s, the Wisemans are treated as outsiders in their working-class South London neighborhood, although this is nothing compared to what happens to the Jamaican family that moves in next door! The gangly, 11-year-old David Wiseman (Sam Smith) is obsessed with playing cricket, even though he has no skill at all. So he’s delighted that the new neighbor Dennis (Delroy Lindo) is willing to teach him how to play. Meanwhile, David’s mother (Emily Woof) is delighted about the neighbor for completely different reasons, while his father (Stanley Townsend) tries to figure out why he’s so out of touch with his family … and why the entire community hates the new neighbors so much.
Yes, there’s a lot going on here, but the main story is David’s loss of innocence as he trades his wondrous oblivion (an obsession with cricket) for a more harsh, realistic worldview … and discovers that with a little work he’s actually better at cricket than anyone expected. Smith plays this with a wide-eyed innocence that soaks up the surroundings. It’s a fairly quiet role–not too much dialog–and his expressive face tells the story beautifully. Woof is remarkable in the rather difficult, complex role of a young immigrant whose childhood was stolen from her, while Townsend somehow turns his thankless character into someone fascinating. And Lindo is terrific–charming and effortlessly heroic.
Morrison films with a honeyed nostalgic glow, blending in David’s fantasies and recreating the period in a stylized way. There are extremely heavy echoes of both “Billy Elliot” (boy yearning to be something unusual) and “East Is East” (funny-serious racial tensions), but Morrison doesn’t seem clear where he’s going. He really needs a finely focused resolution to highlight the issues he raises so sharply along the way. Instead, the film becomes merely a superficial fable about lost youth. And with issues like this at stake, that’s not quite enough.