Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Familiar Fantasy: Son Of Rambow
If you grew up loving movies, you’ll have a soft spot for Son Of Rambow, which is about growing up and loving movies and the place those things overlap. It’s set in 1982, in a small English town where two boys of around 11 form an unlikely friendship via a mostly accidental pursuit: the creation of a home-video sequel to the Sylvester Stallone cult hit and blockbuster zygote First Blood. One of the boys is Lee Carter (Will Poulter), a shoplifting, suspension-getting bully with a camcorder. The other is Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner), a scrawny, well-meaning kid from a strict religious sect who doesn’t know how to say no. Together they are dreamers, adventurers and artists who set out to make a movie and along the way learn about friendship – sometimes through laughs and just as often through blood and tears.
Son Of Rambow is a movie about children but not for them. Its “violence and reckless behavior” is relatively mild as far as PG-13 flicks go, yet the film’s nostalgia-inducing motif is best enjoyed by those old enough to experience nostalgia, or to at least be able to spell it. If you don’t know, for example, that Will is mistaken in adding a ‘w’ to the name of Stallone’s vigilante Vietnam vet, you aren’t in this movie’s target audience. Son Of Rambow, at its best, poignantly captures that period of childhood that we adults both long to recapture and remain thankful that we never have to revisit. A time so sweetly innocent that we could set an alarm to announce the end of play time and then forget about the real world until the clock bells rang. A time so intimidating that we’d literally run from the things that scared us, and there were many.
Written and directed by Garth Jennings, the film is adept at exploring these deep childhood truths with simple gestures. Will’s loneliness and heartbreak over his bygone father is evoked by the sight of him drawing at his father’s workbench. The way Will nestles himself into the coat hanging on the back of the shop door informs us that his father is dead before we have time to detect an absence. Then there’s Will’s tactile exploration of his surroundings: the pinecone he runs over the radiator to revel in its washboard percussion, the trip to the drinking fountain driven not by thirst but by an urge to feel the cold water running over his lips. And, of course, there is Will’s reaction to First Blood.
Since Will’s religion forbids electronic entertainment – Will is banished to the hallway when his class watches educational videos, which is how he comes to meet Lee – his surreptitious glimpse of First Blood marks a moment of genuine discovery, and its awe-inspiring effect on Will is enough to make any film fan wistful. As adults, only well-crafted films truly engulf us in their imaginary worlds, but for kids the movies that fail to transport are the exception to the rule. Sure, I enjoy my honed cinematic tastes as much as the freedom to decide my bedtime, but that doesn’t preclude me from having a fondness for the period of life when every adventure movie was my X-Wing into 360-degree fantasy. When Richard Crenna’s Trautman tells Brian Dennehy’s Sherrif Teasle that sending 200 men against Rambo will only increase the number of necessary body bags, Will’s earnest acceptance of the snicker-worthy line brought back memories of summers when 69-cent Tuesdays at the local video store were cause for wholly satisfying Schwarzenegger binges. Watching Will run through a jungle of his imagination, gunning down his enemies, made me recall afternoons doing the same, or the night I saw The Karate Kid and spent 10 minutes working on my crane kick in the bathroom when I was supposed to be brushing my teeth.
Every movie fan has such stories, or should, making Son Of Rambow a film we not only identify with but yearn to connect with as means of childhood reunion. Growing up, my parents didn’t have a camcorder, so I never made any home-movies, but I remember a week one summer spent in a vacant lot building a foxhole large enough to fit me and a half-dozen friends – a mission inspired by a film about which we, like Will with First Blood, had only a passing understanding: Red Dawn. The fortress was so well camouflaged that two parents unknowingly stood right on top of it when they arrived to issue the order to dismantle the bunker before someone fell in. My dad was one of those parents, and he delivered the news with safety-first sternness. Only he couldn’t be too upset, because when he was a kid his brothers, inspired by The Great Escape, tunneled through and under the cracked concrete foundation of a backyard tool shed. The desire to bring movie adventures off the screen was in my DNA.
Alas, Son Of Rambow isn’t entrenched solely in the world of pure imagination. At some point real-life checks in, and not as effectively. The subplot showcasing the ramifications of Will’s shenanigans on his family’s relationship with The Brethren is well done, thanks in large part to the performance of Jessica Stevenson, as Will’s mother, who provides impressive subtext to a character stuck in the periphery. But eccentric French exchange student Didier (Jules Sitruk) doesn’t earn his considerable screen time, and the effort to shine a light on Lee’s troubled upbringing is so inelegant that it would have been better left a mystery. Milner and Poulter are outstanding throughout – heartfelt and naked and natural in a way that many American child actors are not. But Jennings undermines those performances and their characters by resorting to a Rambo-like excessiveness of sentimentality (rather than violence) and life-and-death consequence that this story doesn’t need. This isn’t to say that Lee’s tears in the movie’s final scene – captured in a touching profile shot by cinematographer Jess Hall that reveals Lee’s vulnerability – won’t lead to tears of your own, because when children are involved we do our best to shed our cynicism. But Son Of Rambow would have been better off not trying so hard.
As it is, Son Of Rambow is a welcome daydream, though it doesn’t come close to rivaling the child fantasy escapism of Millions or Finding Neverland. What makes this picture special is its specific movie theme, which plays to its base as well as a presidential candidate sucking down a cheesesteak in Philadelphia. Its warm palette is a reminder of summers when a swing at the park made for my F-14 ala Top Gun, when my bike was my DeLorean, when a rope-swing made me Indiana Jones. “Make Believe, Not War,” declares the marketing tagline proudly displayed on the Son Of Rambow posters. Amen to that.