David Wiseman (Sam Smith) is just a boy who wants to play cricket. Living in 1960s England, he is obsessed with the sport. He collects cigarette cards of famous players, arranges them in imaginary teams on his bedroom floor and, with the help of a six-sided pencil, has them do battle. On the pitch, he hustles more and tries harder than any of his teammates.
There’s only one problem: David is beyond terrible. He can’t bowl, hit or field. At tryouts for the school team, the coach positions him near the rope, the equivalent of a Little Leaguer being banished to right field. As Wondrous Oblivion begins, other boys laugh when he attempts to throw the ball to the wicket. David winds up being the team’s scorer, keeping track of points while wearing traditional white, despite his coach’s assurances that it’s not necessary. At home, he scrubs his shoes with a toothbrush to ensure maximum whiteness.
You might call David obsessive. Refusing to give up his post even during a driving rainstorm, he stands by the scoreboard at the ready, even as the players huddle under a tree. His devotion to his chosen sport takes him along the usual path for boys becoming men, proving himself in a masculine venture. And though he’s awkward and left out, David seems happy with his lot. When a classmate asks, “Why do you waste your time with cricket? You’re a good scholar,” he doesn’t even consider switching focus. Being good at math may be honorable, but it’s not cool. Like millions of other boys, he seeks the alpha dog status afforded by being cricket captain. David wants both to fit in and stand out.
Determined to improve his chances, David seeks help where he can find it, namely, at the hands of his new neighbors, a Jamaican family who builds a batting cage in their small backyard as soon as they move in. But before he can learn the game, the pint-sized hero must confront racism against his neighbors, a life lesson complicated by his own Jewish descent. David and his parents are displaced German Jews, his grandparents killed in the Holocaust.
And now he’s surrounded by people making judgments and assumptions. Upon learning the Caribbean background of the Samuelses, the “proper” Englishwoman Mrs. Wilson (Carol MacReady) asks David’s mother Ruth (Emily Woof) to complain to the landlord, because “he’s one of yours.” But even as the Wisemans face such prejudice, they simultaneously practice explicit racism against the Jamaicans. David’s father Victor (Stanley Townsend) explains that the Wisemans and their neighbors “don’t mix.” Ruth tells him to be friendly, but never to go “over there.”
At first, David heeds her warning. As the Samuelses examine their new house, he watches from his own second floor window, hidden from view by curtains. He overhears patriarch Dennis (Delroy Lindo) ask, “Where’s the bathroom?” as they explore the small, rectangular backyard. It is a joke, of course, and a blatant way for the film to show Dennis’ awareness of the racism all around him.
This is only reinforced when the Jamaicans throw a loud party on their first night at their new home, keeping the Wisemans and other residents awake until the wee hours of the morning. The next day, Mrs. Wilson recoils in horror at the pile of trash left outside from the previous night’s festivities. Dennis’ wife Grace (Angela Wynter) apologizes for her family’s rudeness, but the damage is done. The Caucasian cohort feels justified in their bigotry.
Eventually, David’s desire to play outweighs his parents’ counsel. He crosses the picket fence, literally lifted over it by Dennis. He’s a slow but eager learner, and Dennis and his daughter Judy (Leonie Elliott) are patient teachers. They help the hopeless boy become an adequate player, good enough to make his school team. David is finally “one of the boys,” embraced by his captain and teammates, just as he always wanted.
Except… his dream isn’t so perfect. While gaining the affection of his white fellows, he sacrifices Dennis and Judy, “the only real friends” he has. Before he agrees to teach David how to play cricket, Dennis tells him, “If you know what your goal is, you can reach it more easily.” Yet, as the boy demonstrates, superficial goals often run contrary to making right decisions. Just so, Wondrous Oblivion offers strategies for life we can all understand.