Son of Rambow (2007) dir. Garth Jennings
Starring: Bill Milner, Will Poulter, Jessica Stevenson, Ed Westwick, Neil Dudgeon, Jules Sitruk
“Son of Rambow” is the latest film in a recent trend of 80’s nostalgia films about that simple, uncomplicated indie filmmakers’ tool – the VHS Camera. This is the second film about those analog days after Michel Gondry’s “Be Kind Rewind”. This film actually takes place in the 80’s – 1982 to be exact – and tells the story of two British kids who find common ground in their attempt to film their own variation of “First Blood”. Unfortunately I have to play the wet blanket reviewer on this one, because despite some admirable cinema-exuberance and cuteness it’s a disappointing comedy.
The film takes place in an English country town in the 80’s. Lee Carter (Will Poulter) is the local troublemaker and is first seen illegally videotaping a theatre presentation of “First Blood” (the first Rambo film). Lee intends to make his own spinoff version of Stallone's film, but is in need of help. So he enlists the aid of the shy and impressionable Will (Bill Milner) to be his stuntman. Will is a talented artist who longs for a form of artistic expression beyond his notebook doodling. His amish-like fundamentalist upbringing "the Brethren" won’t even allow him to watch television. But when he sees Lee’s videotape of “First Blood” it’s like crack, and he’s hooked.
The duo obsessively film their movie, called “Son of Rambow”, under the noses of the school authorities and Will’s disapproving mother. Through his work on the film Will becomes more popular at school, and soon all the kids want to be in it. But as the cast and crew expand it creates a rift between the two filmmakers. And when Will’s mother finds out about the project everything they’ve worked so hard for is threatened.
With “Be Kind Rewind” already come and gone and the “Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation” story already out in the zeitgeist “Son of Rambow” isn’t as original as it perhaps was when the film was first pitched or developed. Jennings, who based the film on real life experiences as a child and as a fan of Rambo, hangs the story on the premise of Will’s childhood rebellion against his fundamentalist upbringing. This subplot which pits the typical disapproving parents/culture against the peer pressure to be popular and socially accepted enters the film into some standard formula filmmaking.
The film works best as an absurdist comedy about kids trying to recreate a big scale action film, compensating limited resources, with boundless energy. Sadly the best moments which depict this are told in a quick early second act montage (featuring those hilarious clips we saw in the trailer). In the second half the subplots of Will’s conflict with his family, Lee’s fractured relationship with his brother and Will and Lee’s own conflicts unnecessarily dominate over the making of the film.
The lead characters ground the film well. Will Poulter’s snarling eyebrows alone instantly create his character. He looks like that loner problem child who was always up to no good. And Bill Milner’s scrawny physique and moptop hair is the ideal awkward hero. Jennings spends too much time with his French foreign exchange student character Didier, who represents a Fonzy-cool rebel-without-a-cause who makes a stir with the British kids. Didier is not funny at all, and takes away valuable space on screen from the likeable characters in the film.
The film’s other purpose is to muse nostalgically about the 80’s. Outrageous costumes, hairstyles, awkward high school dances and 80's music are fed to us again, making the film a parody (or homage) to those John Hughes movies which defined the high school genre.
I seem to be alone in my tepid enthusiasm. The film won over audiences at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival and even the screening I attended ended with spontaneous applause. Just be warned, that it may not be the ‘kids gone wild and make a sweded Rambo film’ you might expect. Enjoy.