Euzhan Palcy's "Sugar Cane Alley," an evocation of boyhood in the Martinique of 1931, never hectors you with its themes; seen through the boy's eyes, colonial racism is simply another part of his world. The movie's energy flags, and at times it can be too corny for words. But enlivened by its performers and set against a beautiful salmon-and-mauve sky that might have come from Fiorucci, it's a sweet memoir of growing up down and out.
The denizens of "black shack alley" (changed to "sugar cane alley" in the title) chop cane for little pay; they've been emancipated but nothing's changed -- "the Master became the Boss." Jose (Garry Cadenat), an 11-year-old orphan, lives here with his grandmother, M'Man Tine (Darling Legitimus), but his quick intelligence gives him a way out. He knocks off an entrance exam and heads off to school in Fort-de-France -- "the town that all the village children dream about."
The cane workers lead miserable lives. In the fields, they're hounded by overseers who won't even let them urinate; and when Jose and his grandmother move to Fort-de-France, they must make a home of an abandoned automobile crate. But Palcy reveals only enough suffering to remind you it's there -- she operates by a sort of shorthand. Instead, she focuses on the strategies people employ to deflect their pain -- a pipe at the end of the day for M'Man Tine, or a dream of returning to Africa for the storyteller Medouze (Douta Seck).
"Sugar Cane Alley" has a loose, easy feel, the anecdotal raggedness of remembrance. The kids pull pranks (which are realistically destructive); a friend of Jose's, a black boy with a white father, is disinherited when his father dies; another friend uses his powers of seduction to get what Jose wins through intellect -- entree into the linen-lined mansions of white society. Sometimes the story gets too aimless; worse, when anything happens to advance the story, it plays like an obtrusive plot device.
But the performances earn forgiveness for these flaws. Cadenat plays Jose with tremendous poise, and when he talks, he radiates the joy of a young mind hungry for discovery. As the grandmother, Legitimus gives the kind of big, hokey performance that can support lines like "They don't know I'm a fighting woman!"
But the scene stealer is the prominent African actor Douta Seck as Medouze. Seck has a raw, skeletal figure that age has worn all the softness out of -- he'd be a perfect model for a med school anatomy class. And in close-up, his face has an electric, almost scary presence. As he sits alone in a field with the wide-eyed Cadenat, demanding "Cric?" (to which Cadenat responds, "Crac!"), he relates tales of the horrors of slavery; in a movie that takes place more than 20 years before its director was born there, the scene resonates with the magical importance of memory. Sugar Cane Alley, opening today at the Key, is rated PG.