EUZHAN PALCY's "Sugar Cane Alley" is a primitive piece, a sepia-toned and soft-spoken reminiscence of schooldays in 1930s Martinique.

Despite its somewhat somnolent, sometimes documentary style, "Sugar Cane" is sweet. What makes it work are the performances by the extraordinary West Indian leads -- Garry Cadenat, as the wistful 11-year-old hero Jose, and Darling Legitimus as his magnificent grandmother M'an Tine.

Black Shack Alley (Sugar Cane Alley is the euphemistic English title) is a shantytown outside Fort de France where Jose lives with M'an Tine, a cane-cutter with a copious lap, great gnarled feet, a madras headdress and an undaunted spirit. The film, as much character study as history, chronicles the old cutter's efforts to see that her grandson completes school, the only promise of a better life.

"Sugar Cane Alley" is actually a West Indian version of John Ford's 1941 film "How Green Was My Valley," about a Welsh child caught in similar straits in a coal town. In both cases, as Jose's teacher says, education is the key to freedom.

Jose, a gifted, loving child, learns about injustice in the cane fields and on the streets of the island capital Fort de France. And he learns to write about these wrongs at the plantation school. Unlike the writer-director herself, he never loses his self-possession and, therefore, his persuasiveness. Palcy, on the other hand, weakens her script with clumsy self-righteousness.

"Sugar Cane Alley," based on Joseph Zobel's novel "La Rue Cases Negres," is surely flawed, even drab. It is, however, a rather special view of a lost culture by an exotic new filmmaker.

SUGAR CANE ALLEY (unrated) -- In French with subtitles, at the Key Theater.