Son of Rambow
Release Date: May 2
Director/Writer: Garth Jennings
Cinematographer: Jess Hall
Starring: Bill Milner, Will Poulter
Studio/Run Time: Paramount Vantage, 96 mins.
Lighthearted friendship tale featuring bulky video camera
Son of Rambow, the new film by Garth Jennings, was an audience favorite at Sundance in 2007, and although it was snatched up quickly for distribution, it’s been held from theaters for over a year. I can only guess why: Someone must’ve been afraid to upstage Stallone with a funny little movie that uses his action franchise as a springboard for something far more rewarding. (I know, they’re probably just hoping to ride his new film’s coattails, but I prefer to see it the other way around.)
Two boys attending an English middle school, Will and Lee (played by perfectly cast newcomers Bill Milner and Will Poulter), are brought together by a slight altercation outside the headmaster’s office. Otherwise, they might not have become friends—they’re complete opposites, Lee a Huck Finn-type miscreant who’s no stranger to the principal’s office, and Will part of a family that belongs to a strict Christian denomination known as “The Brethren.”
The boys’ chance meeting in the hallway eventually leads them to Lee’s house, where Will stumbles across a bootleg of First Blood, Stallone’s original Rambo film, the sight of which nearly burns his long-sheltered eyes and stokes his already fertile imagination, giving him fantasies of bombs and bowie knives and missions in the jungle.
Inspired by what they’ve seen, Lee and Will set out to make their own sequel to Stallone’s film, directed by Lee and starring Will as the skinny, camouflaged “Son of Rambow.” Together they’re reminiscent of Huck and Tom, or the effervescent Pippi Longstocking and the two sticks in the mud she corrupted, except for an important difference: Lee may’ve been the ne’er-do-well who cut Will’s imagination loose, but it’s Will’s imagination that ends up fueling their adventures. When they tire of simply recreating scenes from First Blood, they turn to Will’s drawings for further inspiration.
Although the basic premise (and the sight of a nuclear-power plant) roots the film in the 1980s, the choice of setting is savvier than a simple trip down memory lane. It’s a juncture between eras that allows the ivy-walled school, the boys’ uniforms, and Lee’s stately English home a timeless quality. The boys’ video project is modern enough to stand in contrast to the brick and tweed of the locale, but rather than glossing over that uncomfortable fit, Jennings highlights it with another jolt: the arrival of a French exchange student named Didier, a zipper-clad Euro hipster, a one-man Flock Of Seagulls who might as well be from another planet. Jennings couldn’t have engineered a starker contrast if he’d made his Huck Finn bump into Hannah Montana.
Segregated from his peers for most of his life, Will doesn’t naturally exclude people, so his vision of their movie grows to include everyone he meets, including Didier and his girly entourage. Sensing a loss of control and the loss of a friend, Lee doesn’t like where this is headed.
We’ve now reached a point in cinema history where most new filmmakers grew up with access to home video, and it’s interesting to watch how they use it in their stories. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life uses personal filmmaking as a metaphor for memory. In Vantage Point it’s part of a technical game similar to what Coppola did with audiotape in The Conversation. And Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind sees it as an excuse for friends and neighbors to get together and entertain themselves instead of buying their fun from giant corporations.
Jennings’ sensibilities lie closest to Gondry’s, not just in the belief in camaraderie—the ever-endangered spine of this movie—but also in the way he blends whimsy with fact and can’t pass up the chance for a cute visual flourish. He has a lot of plates to keep spinning—the growing cast, the various modes of fashion—but he syncs them using plain-old traditional friendship, like the boy who hugs that anchor in Stand By Me, like the look Seth gives Evan at the end of Superbad. When all’s said and done, the do-it-yourself-video sequel is an excuse for Jennings to tell a nice little story about buddies.
Click here to read Paste's Emergent feature on Hammer and Tongs (Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith).