Until it dissolves into routine sentimentality, Son of Rambow proves a welcome corrective to the legion of post-Rushmore indies defined by their precious quirkiness and pathos. This isn’t to say that writer-director Garth Jennings’s debut doesn’t owe a debt to the work of Wes Anderson: The film boasts shades of the aforementioned Max Fischer saga and, in its fixation on best friends seeking self-worth through an outrageous scheme, also 1996’s Bottle Rocket. But this Brit import employs its affectations less for look-at-me egotistical purposes than in service of its story’s core emotions. At a U.K. elementary school in the mid-‘80s, Will (Bill Milner), a quiet kid whose family belongs to an ascetic Plymouth Brethren religious community, is conned by delinquent Lee (Will Poulter) into working as the stuntman for a homemade movie he intends to submit to a BBC film contest. Although not permitted by his faith to watch television, Will is exposed—through a bootleg VHS copy made by Lee—to First Blood, an experience that ignites the young boy’s already abundant artistic impulses (whose previous outlet was flip-book animation and cartoon doodles) and sends him running through the countryside ecstatically screaming and play-punching and kicking the air.
Familial troubles plague both Will, fatherless and pressured to remain devout by his mother, and Lee, whose mom lives in Spain with her beau, leaving him in the care of a brother, Lawrence (Ed Westwick), who treats his sibling like a servant. Through the creation of “Son of Rambow,” Will and Lee—desperate for loyal, supportive companionship—become literal and figurative blood brothers. At the same time, Will, through their film’s tale about young Rambo’s mission to rescue his captured father, externalizes grief and powerlessness over losing his own dad. The pious home life Will must eventually rebel against is a contrived counterpoint to his love for Sly Stallone’s iconic actioner, resulting in a narrative conflict so extreme that it feels simplistic and easy. Nonetheless, Milner convincingly imparts the adolescent excitement produced by devouring a movie—a heady euphoria that compels kids to instinctively, uncontrollably, spastically role-play the awe-inspiring scenes and characters to which they’ve just been exposed. As in Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind, the cinema is here presented as a liberating vehicle for creative expression and a means of fostering close communal ties, and Rambow is strongest when it fixates on the joy, the togetherness, and the makeshift, anything-goes inventiveness that defines the duo’s amateurish production.
Though incapable of matching the visual flair of Gondry’s film, Jennings treats his characters and their coming-of-age dilemmas without irony or aloofness, a measure of respect aided by the performances of his leads, whose odd-couple dynamic has a guileless honesty. Nostalgia for the ‘80s takes the form of soundtrack cuts and silly fashions, but comes most directly via Didier (Jules Sitruk), an über-cool visiting French student with skunk-streaked hair and a Michael Jackson “Beat It” jacket who epitomizes everything rad about the era. Didier starts off charmingly goofy—the choicest gag being his decision to light a cigarette by having his acolytes hold hands to make a human chain and then touch an exposed electric wire—and then slowly wears thin, reduced as he is to merely the obligatory force that will come (temporarily, of course) between Will and Lee. Sadly, the character’s devolution into a schematic plot device also ultimately mirrors the trajectory of Rambow, with Jennings’s interest in dramatizing youthful male bonds of friendship and cinema’s function as a unifying medium giving way to sappy clashes and even sappier resolutions whose lackluster familiarity is diametrically opposed to that which characterizes Will and Lee’s crude, heartfelt celluloid paean to fathers, brothers, and shooting really big guns.