Son of Rambow

| May 17, 2008

Family films that actually manage to entertain the entire family and not just the kindergarten crowd have become few and far between in these days of appealing to the lowest common denominator. That’s why it’s such a relief to find a film like Son of Rambow. While it has its flaws, it’s a consistently entertaining romp that reinforces the positive nature of friendships, family and creativity.
Set in England during the early 1980’s, the film tells the story of young Will Proudfoot (newcomer Bill Milner). Will’s family is part of a strict religious group called The Brethren. As part of their religion, Will is forbidden from watching TV and movies or listening to the radio. Indeed, when we first meet him, his world seems to revolve around prayer meetings and a dreary home life with his widowed mother, Mary (Jessica Stevenson, Shaun of the Dead), who is still silently grieving the loss of her husband. His school life is not much better. While he’s not the target of teasing by the other kids because of his religion, he’s largely ignored. It’s no surprise that he turns inward, looking to his own imagination full of odd creatures like flying dogs and monsters in the guise of demonic scarecrows for entertainment. These creations find their way on to any spare piece of paper that Will can find to draw his ever-expanding fantasy universe.
After a chance encounter with school troublemaker Lee Carter (newcomer Will Poulter), Will discovers a whole new world when he views a bootlegged copy of First Blood that Lee videotaped off the theater screen. With its over-the-top machismo, explosions and excessive violence, the film is something of a religious experience for the sheltered Will. It isn’t long before he’s helping Lee make his own shot-on-video action movie, titled Son of Rambow, to enter into a young filmmakers competition. But while he finds a new outlet for his vivid imagination and an unlikely new friendship with the rebellious Lee, Will’s odyssey into the world of filmmaking brings pressure on his mother from the other members of The Brethren. It isn’t long before they threaten Mary with expulsion from the church if she doesn’t reign in her suddenly free-spirited son.
Writer-director Garth Jennings injects a healthy amount of sincerity into this simple story of two outcasts finding friendship with each other. While this does lead to occasionally sappy moments, it’s easily forgivable because the sap is well earned. Most importantly, he never forgets that parents have to sit through so-called family films as well. He delivers plenty of clever dialogue (be sure to listen to the narrator of the school documentaries), very funny sight gags and involving drama to keep the older members of the audience entertained. At the same time, he doesn’t dumb down the material for the kids in the audience. The kids in this film swear (nothing especially vulgar, but there is some mild profanity), inexpertly smoke cigarettes in an attempt to look cool, do stupid things to impress their peers and have complicated relationships that put their friendships to the test. In short, they act like actual kids their age.
Where the film does run into problems is with the underdeveloped subplot of French foreign exchange student Didier (newcomer Jules Sitruk). A flamboyantly androgynous teenager who fancies himself a mixture of Robert Smith and Patrick Swayze, he finds himself bored in the small English town until he discovers Will and Lee’s movie. Will is star struck by the popular Didier and quickly agrees to let him act in the movie, much to Lee’s chagrin. While the ensuing complications provide a needed plot twist for Lee and Will to butt heads creatively, Jennings also tries to use the situation as a not-so-subtle satire about independent filmmakers being seduced by Hollywood and big name actors. The unfortunate result is that the film loses focus during much of the third act before recovering with a low-key and satisfying conclusion.
While Jennings has captured a believable look at two boys in the first disorienting stages of adolescence, it is the outstanding performances of Milner and Poulter that keep the film anchored in a painfully believable friendship. Milner perfectly captures the wide-eyed innocence of Will, and it’s a joy to watch his exuberance for the filming process as he finds his calling. Poulter is given the more difficult role and excels in it. He’s essentially asked to play two different parts as he keeps up a cocky attitude as the school rebel, while showing a touching vulnerability as he privately worships his big brother, who can hardly be bothered to acknowledge his existence. Much of the film’s central relationship also falls on his shoulders as he makes the believable transition from bullying Will to becoming such good friends with him that it nearly breaks him when they come to blows over the direction of their movie. He’s a natural and gives the best performance by a child actor since River Phoenix first wowed us in Stand by Me. Seriously, he’s that good.
Despite the third-act missteps, this is a very good little film. It’s not getting a very wide release, so you may have to search for it. But it’s a family film with a brain and a lot of heart, and that’s worth going the extra mile to find. And just a side note to the parents out there who may be concerned about the PG-13 rating: the film really isn’t so rough that the younger kids won’t be able to handle it. Sure, it has some coarse language, and the emotions may get a bit intense at times, but it’s still a better option than killing their precious brain cells with another Shrek or Alvin and the Chipmunks movie.

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