Son of Rambow: A director’s boyhood dream realized on film

posted 2/3/09 on 2009: A Film Odyssey

If your Superbowl XLIII experience was anything like mine (WTF, THAT WAS SO NOT A FUMBLE!!!), then you need some kind of light entertainment to help you forget last night. A movie with heart and nostalgia to take you back to the good old grade school days when summer meant trekking through the woods with friends and weekends meant guzzling soda and playing Uno at sleepovers. A time before you realized NFL referees were blind and when Kurt Warner was allowed to win a Superbowl.

Maybe your childhood wasn’t quite like that, but in any case, Son of Rambow is a fun movie written and directed by Garth Jennings (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) with an authentic boyish sentiment — as if it were made by a kid who grew up and became a professional filmmaker but never lost his youthful spirit.

And in a way, that’s the case here.


THE FILM

Son of Rambow begins by showing the everyday lives of two boys growing up in suburban England in the 1980s. They live on opposite sides of town and have a similarly opposite upbringing — which doesn’t stop them from becoming friends, “blood brothers,” and an ambitious filmmaking duo out to win the BBC’s “Screen Test” prize for children younger than 17.

An interesting camera movement introduces the character of little Bill Proudfoot (Bill Milner). The cinematography of Jess Hall (Hot Fuzz, Brideshead Revisited) leads us in a tracking-and-zooming motion through a rectangular window from the kitchen to the living room, then through the living room window to the backyard shed, where Bill finds an old watch and nurtures his pet mice. The shot is composed in such a fashion as to become a metacinematic device, with the windows standing for movie screens framing the action. This marks the first clue that Son of Rambow is — among other things — a movie about movies.

We learn quickly that Bill was born to a Plymouth Brethren family, which is evidently the British lite version of being Amish. Parents send their children to schools with kids from outside the faith, and they use electricity, but they don’t believe in frivolous entertainments such as TV, cinema, or record players, which allegedly lure innocent people into evildoing.

With Bill’s biological father deceased some time ago from a sudden aneurysm, devout churchgoer Brother Joshua (Neil Dudgeon) assumes the role of Proudfoot family patriach. He punishes Bill, scolds his mother (Jessica Hynes) for her passive parenting (which, from a contemporary perspective, actually seems very strict), and even seats himself at the head of the family table.

In rebellion to the Brethren’s way of life, Bill befriends Lee Carter (Will Poulter). Lee is a worldly bad boy and detention room regular who feels at home smoking in a movie theater (a surprising sight for American audiences since Poulter was only 13 or 14 at the time). Naturally, he has a broken home life that explains his behavior. His affluent parents spend most of their time overseas and leave Lee to the care of his older brother, Lawrence (Ed Westwick), who lets his friends pummel Lee for fun and forces Lee to fix every meal. He finds a much needed escape in his friendship with Bill.

When Lee that introduces Bill to a bootleg of the first Rambo movie, First Blood (1982), Bill also finds his escape. His imagination runs wild with fantasies of becoming a mini-Stallone, and his notebook fills up with sketches that become storyboards for their home video project.

Their two-boy project escalates into a massive collaboration once the suave French exchange student Didier Revol (an androgynous and scuzzy-haired Jules Sitruk) gets a hold of the script and decides the movie, unlike the line of lipsticked English girls waiting for a chance to kiss him — and pretty much everything else in England — , is “cool.”

But Lee does not dig the quintessential 80s French punk, and the project’s newfound popularity threatens to tear the boys’ friendship apart. Meanwhile, Brother Joshua has plans to remove Bill from school and take him on a trip for a couple weeks to straighten out his morals.

Jennings makes an interesting choice to not condemn violence in movies, even when considering preteen viewership. He has many chances to, especially when some child actors are hurt on the set of their movie. Those incidents are smoothed over in time, however, and excused with a “boys will be boys” mentality. To Jennings, mowing down bad guys and showing a bit of spilled blood is all in good fun — part of action flicks’ silly charm. As the director himself explains in the making-of featurette, children watching such movies is “every parent’s worst nightmare,” but in his parents’ case, they were glad he used movies as an outlet instead of actually perpetrating violence.


SPECIAL FEATURES

The DVD features a commentary with Milner, Poulter, Jennings, and Producer Nick Goldsmith. Also included is a video that won the Son of Rambow website contest, as well as a 1986 film short entitled “Aron” that Jennings directed as a teenager. Both film shorts are a little on the dull side due to their lack of continuity editing and abundance of action movie clichés (e.g. briefcase exchanges, sneaking up on guards and breaking their necks by twisting them). The shorts have their funny moments, but they did not add a whole lot to the DVD experience.

The true gold in the special features is in the appropriately named “Boys will be Boys” making-of documentary. In it, Jennings, Goldsmith, and the film’s two stars talk about the movie’s unique style of production. Instead of recruiting known child actors, Jennings conducted casting calls across Britain to find amateurs with promise. In addition to being convincing screen actors, Milner and Poulter come off as great kids with a lot of chemistry who starred in Son of Rambow for the sheer fun of it. Let’s just hope they don’t go the way of America’s child actors who become jaded and burnt out by age 16.

You can also tell Jennings is excellent at communicating with and getting the best possible performances out of the kids he directs. He has a gentle way of speaking to Milner and Poulter, simply but without condescension — not like a boss, but like a friend. Evidently Jennings has looked forward to filming this movie since his teen years, when he scribbled down plot ideas in his notebook.

It took years to acquire enough interest and funding to produce Rambow, and making Hitchhiker’s Guide barely helped his cause. But he finally completed the project in 2007, having used two barges-turned-studios in London as his sound and film editing studios.

You read correctly: post-production took place on a river, though the barges were cemented down.


HIGHLIGHTS

Poulter is so convincing as Lee Carter that it seems impossible for Rambow to be his debut performance. His devilish grin and smart-ass manner of speaking really exude the confidence and cleverness required of his character.

One of my favorite parts is the scene where Bill and Lee join the exclusive party held by French exchange students. Jennings plays on the punk rock scene of the era, with kids ODing on pop rocks and soda instead of cocaine and applying tattoos with a piece of paper instead of a needle. They use the dance floor for dancing, not grinding and making out. In short, the kids enjoy good clean fun and demonstrate just how lame the Plymouth Brethren are for assuming that partying is a sin (kinda like Footloose).


LOWLIGHTS

Toward the end, the story loses some of its original luster and originality as plot points begin to follow the old familiar patterns. I get the feeling that maybe Jennings ran out of ideas when it came to finishing up the story . . . which isn’t a feeling I want to have, considering how endearing most of the film is.

I also wonder about the necessity of Didier being such an important character. At the end, when it’s time to leave for France, he accepts gifts from all his English friends before getting on the bus. He offers a heartfelt goodbye. As they depart from the campus, his French friends make fun of him for looking a little upset — for finally blowing his nonchalance. Honestly, I found myself not caring enough about his character to care about this scene.


VERDICT

See Rambow if you’re in the mood for some nostalgic laughs and quirky characters, especially if you liked Be Kind Rewind but thought it should have been about kids. Expect moments of brilliance but not perfection.


STATS

Nominated for one award at BAFTA and four awards at the British Independent Film Awards
Rated 74% on RottenTomatoes
Running time: 96 minutes
Rated PG-13


COMING SOON TO A BLOG NEAR YOU

Be sure to check back in a few days when I’ll be re-watching (saw it in theater) and reviewing Jonathan Levine’s The Wackness. Which, by the way, has a great 90s rap soundtrack.