Movie love has caught characters in its celluloid web before. Cinema Paradiso, The Dreamers and The Purple Rose of Cairo have all examined the bliss of escaping reality through the transportive power of movies. But cinephilia strikes very young in Son of Rambow, a film about two British children deeply obsessed with the sweaty, brawny spectacle of Sylvester Stallone pulverizing his enemies in the 1982 vengeance-fueled Reagan-era action film First Blood. One of those unlikely alliances of people so different they could only become best friends, Son of Rambow centers on a timid church mouse with a perpetually startled expression, Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner), who lives with his mother, sister and grandmother in a devout, isolated religious sect.
While the rest of his provincial 1980s-era British classmates em-brace the New Wave zeitgeist of the ’80s, Will lives in a serene world where women’s heads are covered in kerchiefs, and he shares a bedroom with his elderly grandmother. Director Garth Jennings (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) has a great ear for the catchphrases of kids (“skills” is a favorite slang term bandied about), and he knows how even the most podunk town, via pop music and movies, can embrace the styles and attitudes of the outside world.
But Will’s religious order is so censorious that movies, television and music are forbidden. Banished from his classroom while the other students watch a documentary, Will makes the acquaintance of the school delinquent Lee Carter (Will Poulter), a serial bad apple with a demonically cocked eyebrow and Jack Nicholson’s malevolent grin. Lee senses a ready victim in the soft, gullible Will, and cons him immediately out of his dead father’s wristwatch. But exploitation soon morphs into friendship. As the id to Will’s superego, Lee turns Will on to the delights of the trashy, violence-fueled cinema his pious religious order has warned him about. After just one gander at Lee’s bootlegged copy of First Blsood, Will is, literally, off and running, drunk on the giddy pleasures of blood lust and mayhem. The boys join forces to win an amateur television filmmaking contest by making their own backyard action adventure (titled the same as the movie), about, significantly, a young boy searching for his father.
Son of Rambow is about the wacky, comical spectacle of two movie-mad kids acting out their obsession. But Son of Rambow is also a buddy film, a half-pint Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid about how adrift these kids are. Will’s father is dead, and Lee’s sorry substitute for a parent is an aloof older brother. It is no coincidence that Will and Lee bond over an exemplar of uber-machismo, Rambo, the kind of man of action and purpose missing in their own lives.
Lee and Will are eventually aided and abetted in their movie-making by an eccentric French exchange student Didier Revol (Jules Sitruk), whose streaked hair, pointy red boots and feigned disgust for the provincial Brits (“I’m trapped in a world of boredom”) have made him a New Wave cult hero at the local school. Didier worms his way into the production, threatening to steal the show and break up the buddies.
Son of Rambow is an exceptionally earnest film about a blossoming, sweet friendship founded as much on loss as movie love. But it’s hard not to long for more in a film that tries hard, but continually misses the mark. Though director Jennings goes for heartwarming, his combination of Buster Keaton-style slapstick as the boys create dangerous stunts for their movie and the family dramas they contend with at home feels like two well-intentioned parallel courses that never gel into a coherent whole. Desperate for winsome, Jennings in the end just tries too hard, settling for cute when something more meaty is required in this story of two fatherless boys.
The two leads are undeniably adorable, and Jennings could certainly have afforded to focus more on their developing emotional bond instead of the pratfalls of their movie-making or the growing power play over the film’s true star, Didier.
Though the sight of the fawningly uncool British schoolchildren following Didier around like Christ’s disciples and an after-school New Wave club where kids feign decadence by chugging Pop Rocks and Coke are humorous, the comic bits can get in the way. Son of Rambow suggests the stylized, retro sensibility of Wes Anderson married to the kiddie adventurism of Steven Spielberg. But Jennings’ often clunky and obvious hand too often veers into facile teen comedy and John Hughes-style visual jokes about the various freaks and geeks populating this small British burg.