Set in a small English village in the early '80s, Son of Rambow is about the friendship between two pre-teen boys, and it begins with something like a classic meet-cute: Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) and Lee Carter (Will Poulter) are stationed outside their respective classrooms at the same time but for different reasons: Will's class is about to watch an educational film, but his family's strict policy against television brooks no exceptions. Lee, meanwhile, is merely being punished for an unnamed transgression. Lee sizes up his smaller, meeker counterpart from down the hall and lobs a tennis ball off Will's forehead. Ah, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
It turns out that these very different boys have plenty in common — both are creative kids with sad, knotty home lives. Will is a sensitive soul being raised, along with a younger sister, by a single mother in a strict religious sect. Lee is an emerging delinquent whose absentee parents have left him under the stewardship of a neglectful older brother. Both seek creative escapes: Lee is first seen at the local cinema, bootlegging the Sylvester Stallone action flick First Blood using his bulky camcorder, later taking the film home for study in his own nascent filmmaking attempts. Will is denied such extravagances but draws elaborate fantasy tableaux on the pages of his Bible and makes flip comics about plane crashes.
In short order, Will goes from hallway victim to film star in Lee's cinematic opus. At first reluctant, Will catches a viewing of the contraband First Blood at Lee's house and has his mind blown, running home with movie-mad fantasy scenarios dancing in his head.
That writer-director Garth Jennings taps the moody ex-POW drama First Blood as source material (rather than the more popular, more recklessly violent, more jingoistic follow-up, Rambo: First Blood Part II) is appropriate. Violence aside, these kids recognize something in the film's aggrieved loner perspective, not to mention being attracted to a woodsy survivalism that can easily be massaged into a vision of adventurous play. There's also, unlike most Hollywood action movies, no romantic interest to complicate things. First Blood is a boys' club all the way.
As Lee and Will set out to make their own version — with Will as the "son of Rambo" out to rescue his imprisoned father — they come up with a much better sequel than Stallone did, replete with flying dogs, pine-cone grenades, and androgynous French exchange students. (Though the latter is the source of some on-set friction: "Isn't he brilliant?" Will says of the older, cooler Didier, who has cast himself as a lead. "He looks like a complete cock," Lee answers, resentfully.)
The celebration of DIY-filmmaking and kid-play creativity has echoes of Be Kind Rewind and, even more so, the great theater scenes in Rushmore, but Son of Rambow wants to be something more than a good, zany comedy about little kids making an action movie. The plot mechanics the film uses to dig deeper feel forced — the conflict and danger that emerge from the filmmaking enterprise are more like the stuff of three-act movie narrative than life. But the film's wobbly tone coheres in the end, righting itself with a feel-good finale that's unusually well-earned.
Son of Rambow
Opening Friday, May 23rd