A half-pint of Sly
Son of Rambow
Writer-director Garth Jennings’ Son of Rambow is apparently an attempt to graft the blue-collar British whimsy of movies like The Full Monty, Brassed Off and Waking Ned Devine onto a transatlantic version of John Hughes’ adolescent comedies of the 1980s—The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, etc. Viewers who are resistant or immune to the charms of either genre would be wise to steer clear of Son of Rambow.
Predictably enough, the movie is about an improbable friendship between two English schoolboys. Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) is a meek little thing being raised by his widowed mother (Jessica Stevenson) in a rigid, Amishlike religious community called the Brethren—so rigid, in fact, that Will is not even allowed to watch TV documentaries in school, and must wait idling in the hallway every time his lazy teacher pops a tape into the VCR. It’s there that Will meets Lee Carter (Will Poulter), the school’s pugnacious delinquent, also banished to the hallway, though not because he can’t watch TV.
Besides being in the same hallway at the same time on that particular day, the two boys have something else in common, though they don’t know it yet: Both are fatherless and hungry for a male authority figure they can look up to. Oddly enough, they find it in Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo in the movie First Blood (1982), currently playing at their local cinema. In fact, we first meet the boys there: Will is on the steps outside with the rest of the Brethren, reading from the Bible and urging passersby to come to Jesus rather than going to the movies; Lee is inside, smoking a cigarette and videotaping the movie for his brother’s black-market operation.
Lee has other cinematic ambitions, though, and after first lying to Will and stealing from him, he recruits him to act as stuntman in a movie he hopes to enter in a student film competition. Sneaking away from his ineffectual mother at every chance, Will plunges into the project, gradually turning it into the tale of “Rambow"'s son rescuing his missing dad. Not incidentally, the boys’ movie becomes a version of the delirious cartoon fantasies with which Will has covered the pages of his Bible—an early, more solitary form of rebellion against the Brethren.
Before long, word of Lee and Will’s movie has leaked out and attracted attention at school. The first to notice is the exotic, Eurotrash French exchange student Didier (Jules Sitruk), whose participation makes the movie the cool thing to do among the other students. The scale of the production grows exponentially, attracting dozens, even hundreds of students, while their teachers and parents blithely go about whatever clueless grown-ups do in movies like this. Meanwhile, Lee begins to resent losing control of the project, and especially losing Will’s undivided attention.
There’s a messy, anarchic spirit in Son of Rambow that, however forced and false it feels (and it feels very forced and false indeed), attempts to pass for a badge of authenticity. Just as Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind looked more akin to the gonzo videos its heroes were making than it did to a “real” movie, Son of Rambow looks like a movie made by adolescent boys away from the prying eyes of adult authorities—a movie where a hated teacher jamming a pair of scissors up his nose is cause for gleeful hilarity.
For some viewers, Garth Jennings’ trick may work, but it leans heavily on an audience’s boys-will-be-boys tolerance. It leans also on the charms of young Milner and Poulter, which are not unlimited; they seem less like real schoolboys than precocious twerps from London Central Casting, checking their BlackBerry smartphones between shots to see about that advert on the telly they auditioned for. They’re certainly not up to making Will anything but a mealy-mouthed little wimp or Lee more than an obnoxious punk, liar, thief and bully.
Jennings tries to make his young antiheroes into Tom and Huck in the sixth-form common room with a camcorder, but his movie doesn’t have the discipline to bring the idea off. Instead, Jennings relies on an audience having the kind of inattentive indulgence he otherwise lampoons.