That writer-director Garth Jennings should make a film about the joys of simple filmmaking—in much the same spirit one finds in Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind (2008)—is hardly surprising in light of Jennings’ previous film, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005). One of the chief delights of that unreasonably maligned movie lay in its tendency to eschew CGI for more solidly based, simpler special effects, something that gave Hitchhiker a sense of weightiness missing from most of today’s effects-heavy films. In Jennings’ charming new movie, Son of Rambow, the cheesiness of the effects—combined with simple creativity in filmmaking—is part of the point.
It also comes as no surprise that Jennings has gone on record to say that Son of Rambow is in part drawn from his own childhood efforts as a backyard filmmaker. Anyone who has ever picked up a camcorder or an 8mm S&H Green Stamps-acquired Kodak Brownie with an eye toward making a movie will relate. Anyone who has ever seen a movie and afterward was fired up with the idea of making a movie of his or her own will also relate. Jennings’ film is set in 1982, and the movie that sparks our heroes’ interest in filmmaking is that year’s First Blood. But Son of Rambow transcends generations, in that you could move the story to 1962 or 2002 by merely picking a different influential movie and the concept would work as well.
The story focuses on two boys, Will Proudfoot (newcomer Bill Milner) and Lee Carter (newcomer Will Poulter), who become unlikely friends and filmmaking partners. How unlikely are they? Well, Will and his family belong to the Plymouth Brethren, a strict, separatist religious group who make the Amish look like raging hedonists. Lee, on the other hand, is the school bully, an ill-tempered, cigarette-smoking troublemaker who records movies off the local cinema screen for his big brother’s movie-piracy business. The two meet at school when Will is sent into the hall by his teacher because the class is going to watch a documentary (movie and TV watching is forbidden by the Brethren’s teachings). Lee is also sent into the hall for some unknown infraction, yet it’s apparently an extravagant one to judge by the teacher’s tone and the class’ cheering reaction to his expulsion.
At first, Lee merely sees Will as someone to bully. When Lee realizes that the boy is incredibly naive—so unworldly that he’ll believe anything—he senses that he not only has a victim, but an easy mark for any plan that creeps into his fiendish brain. However, the pair do have two points in common: They’re both fatherless and friendless. In the latter capacity, the situation is partly the result of Will being forbidden to mix with children outside his faith and Lee having a natural bullying talent. Things start to change when Will accidentally watches the bootleg VHS copy of First Blood (imagine this as your first-ever movie!). He not only begins incorporating the film into his fantasy life, but also falls readily in step with Lee’s notions of making his own (not yet their own) Rambo movie.
Son of Rambow then follows the making of this childish knockoff, the development of the boys’ friendship and the complications arising from it all, especially when the only “cool” French exchange student, Didier (Jules Sitruk), wants to participate in the film, making Will, in particular, instantly cool by association. This is an occurrence that drives a wedge between Will and Lee, and forms a good deal of the plot—and it’s beautifully achieved. Jennings evidences an understanding of childhood jealousies that I’ve rarely, if ever, encountered in a film. He also grasps the life-and-death level of importance of such matters to the kids experiencing them.
In the main, Jennings has crafted a work that beautifully—and humorously—evokes childhood and the impact of movies on children. It’s very much comparable to Be Kind Rewind in its obvious love of movies and the concept of movies binding us to each other, but it also attempts to go a step further—and I’m not sure that it completely succeeds. The whole business of Will’s religious background is also just too easily resolved. Though beautifully resolved in a scene of quiet intensity and subtle gesture involving his mother, Mary (Jessica Hynes, Shaun of the Dead), and her control-freak spiritual advisor (and apparent suitor), Joshua (Brit TV actor Neil Dudgeon), it feels simplistic. (Perhaps Mary realizes that one of the most famous figures ever to be raised in this faith was Aleister Crowley?)
In a sense, I think Jennings has perhaps simply tried to do too much with his film, but isn’t that so much better than trying to do too little—a quality we encounter almost weekly at the movies? Regardless, Son of Rambow scores far more than it doesn’t. Jennings has filled the film with wonderful touches throughout—the all-smoking cinema audience (seated in front of the “no smoking” sign), great offscreen soundtrack gags (“Used carefully, fire can be our friend”) etc.—and has created a film with astonishing emotional resonance. Even if there are little flaws, they’re pretty insignificant in comparison. Rated PG-13 for some violence and reckless behavior.