Film fest opener takes cricket bat to big themes

Assimilation, immigration, racism, culture clash, the awkwardness of adolescence, the adult longing for physical affection, the shadow of the Holocaust — the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival’s opening night selection does not lack for weighty themes.

And yet “Wondrous Oblivion,” which portrays a Jewish boy’s introduction to bigotry in South London in the early ’60s, is surprisingly glossy and benign. Although it boasts a couple of hold-your-breath moments of acute vulnerability, this well-meaning British movie is a little too soft-centered for its own good.

There’s certainly no shame in making a movie whose aim is to encourage tolerance and cross-cultural understanding — and which older children can appreciate. Indeed, such a film is an apt choice to open a festival centered on the Jewish experience. The rub is that writer-director Paul Morrison (who made the melodramatic interfaith romance “Solomon and Gaenor”) lays the groundwork for a far more complex and rewarding film than he delivers.

“Wondrous Oblivion” follows the parallel transformations of 11-year-old David Wiseman and his German-born mother, Ruth. David has embraced cricket, eager to be one of the guys, but he’s destined for eternal geekdom as he can’t play worth a hoot.

The timid Ruth spends her days raising David and his little sister, fending off the gossipy, conservative neighbors and minding the rules laid down by her older Polish husband, Victor, a Holocaust survivor (we presume) who works long days at his fabric store.

When a Jamaican family moves in next door — and exuberantly sets up a cricket net in the back yard — the Wisemans’ staid routine is altered in a flash. The ninnies on the block tut-tut at the proximity of dark-skinned people, Victor frowns on David socializing with their new neighbors and threatening notes are shoved through the Wiseman mail slot.

David nonetheless commences daily batting instruction from Dennis (Delroy Lindo), the genial, street-smart head of the Samuels household. More shocking, Ruth finds herself going to an afternoon social with Dennis and (in classic movie shorthand) rediscovering youthful hairstyles.

“Wondrous Oblivion” spins a few twists on the cliches inherent in this setup. David turns out not to be a clumsy nerd, but a pretty fair batsman who simply needed a bit of coaching and practice. Victor, although stern, isn’t a humorless, sunken-cheeked ghost but a stout man with a twinkle.

Avoiding another tired film convention, David doesn’t view the ball-playing, beer-drinking Dennis as the father he wishes he had. His friendship with Dennis’ daughter, Judy, on the other hand, leads to a most potent life lesson.

But in a movie custom that really needs to be retired, the black (in the context of the film) family becomes the catalyst for the white family’s reconnection. You’d think — except for a single remark that Victor makes early in the film — that the Wisemans lived in a prejudice-free bubble until the Samuels arrived. Hadn’t David ever been the butt of an anti-Semitic crack?

Apparently not, and his lack of friends stemmed solely from his athletic inability.

In contrast, the closing night’s film, “Nina’s Tragedies,” is baffling in an entirely different way. An absurdist fable shot through with scenes of genuine pathos, this deadpan Israeli drama — which also features an adolescent protagonist trying to fathom the actions of capricious adults — will have moviegoers alternately laughing out loud, dabbing their eyes and scratching their heads.

“Wondrous Oblivion” screens at 8 p.m. Thursday, July 22, at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F.; 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 1, at Wheeler Auditorium in Berkeley; 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 5, at the Century Cinema 16, 1500 North Shoreline Blvd., Mountain View; and 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 7, at the Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael. Tickets: $7-$18. (925) 275-9490 or


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Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.