FILM has been called a universal language, and children are certainly a universal subject. Hence the universal appeal of movies that treat kids with freshness and insight, as do a pair of new pictures from two very different lands: Sugar Cane Alley, made in Martinique, and the British comedy Kipperbang.
Of the two, ''Sugar Cane Alley'' comes as the biggest surprise, since the West Indies aren't exactly known as a cinematic center. Also called ''Rue Cases Negres'' or ''Black Shack Alley,'' it was directed by Euzhan Palcy, a native of Martinique who has worked there in both radio and film production.
She is a sophisticated director, with credits including a degree from the Sorbonne, a doctorate in cinema studies, and two earlier movies. But she has kept a steady eye on her roots, as the rough-hewn charm and elemental feelings of her new film make plain.
Set in Martinique during the early 1930s, the story focuses on 11-year-old Jose, an orphan who lives with his grandmother in a miserably poor slum. By day the adults trudge to a day of hard labor in the cane fields, while the youngsters pass their time with games and mischief - not always harmless, especially when they get hold of some liquor and lose control of their childish energy.
Given the poverty and superstition that pervade their nearly feudal community , it's hard to blame the boys and girls for lapses of behavior. But the film never despairs over them. Along with a few others, Jose and his grandma realize intuitively that a better life is possible, and that schooling is the key. Jose delights in his intelligence, and the crusty old matriarch doesn't hesitate to sacrifice on his behalf. He wins a scholarship to a high school in the capital - which opens the gate to fresh challenges as he adjusts to radically new experiences in a strange and unsettling environment.
Basing her screenplay on a West Indian novel she has loved since her early teens, filmmaker Palcy explores a wide range of issues through this plain story. The contrasting scenes in Sugar Cane Alley and the big city, Fort-de-France, illustrate many aspects of colonial society, from simple folk customs to complex racial attitudes. The characters are impressively varied, each embodying a different response to the pressures of lack and oppression.
The film's political dimension is also expressed through a proud emphasis on the African history of the black population, which is artfully integrated into the flow of the tale. One of the most striking episodes involves an old villager who passes to Jose an awareness of his African heritage, and an understanding of how a successful rebellion against slavery in Martinique has led only to new, more modern forms of exploitation and tyrrany. (This insight is similar to one in the current ''El Norte.'')
During a recent New York visit, Euzhan Palcy told me she was indeed interested in treating such social and political themes. She added that Martinique has seen a marked revival of African awareness in recent years - quite a change from her own childhood days a couple of decades ago, when pupils were taught in school that all the residents of this French ''overseas department'' were of French descent!
But she stressed that her main concern was good old storytelling and character development, and that one of her biggest joys in directing the picture was working with the children of Sugar Cane Alley, who brought to mind her own growing-up years. Her sympathy with them as strong, potentially marvelous people is a constant in her very good film, which makes a fetching introduction to Martinique as a tiny but promising corner of the world movie scene. Light British comedy
''Kipperbang'' is less exotic fare: a light British comedy about a 14 -year-old boy who yearns to kiss a pretty classmate, and thinks he might get his chance in the school play. Yet here too the filmmakers have more in mind than story-spinning alone. They set their tale in 1948 and allow the recent traumas of World War II to cast a subtle shade over the tale.
Thus young Duckworth - or Quack-Quack, as his pals call him - not only pursues the girl of his dreams. He also befriends a local workingman who fills him with tales of battlefield heroism, then turns out to be other than he seems. Even a more frivolous subplot, about a teacher's covert sex life, has roots in the war and its disorienting influence.
But none of this (or the occasional sexual innuendo) is heavy enough to darken the warm and funny scenes that are the picture's main business. The folkways of the junior-high set are rendered with amazing skill and affection, and the performances are crisply on target. In all, it's a cheery achievement by director Michael Apted - who demonstrated his comic talent in ''Coal Miner's Daughter'' before going more serious in ''Gorky Park'' - and producer David Puttnam, whose ''Melody'' and even ''Local Hero'' also showed a flair for youngish doings.
As for the title, I'd gladly tell what ''kipperbang'' means if I could figure it out myself. But since none of the characters seem to know, either - although it's their ritual greeting, uttered in great solemnity - maybe it's just as well.