LITTLE ROCK A darling English export, Son of Rambow is a warm and very specific evocation of the naive grandeur of a pre-adolescent boy's life. Set in the early 1980s, it's the story of a friendship between two fatherless social misfits who produce a straight-to-video cassette remake of Sylvester Stallone's First Blood, the vigilante movie that introduced the character of John Rambo.
The second feature film credited to the creative team Hammer & Tongs (director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith, who've made a slew of rock videos as well as The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe), this Rambow is more notable for its charmingly homemade textures than its ultimately straightforward story.
Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) is a quietly odd kid who daydreams through his classes drawing comics - or what might be storyboards - in notebooks and, to stunning effect, in the Bible he keeps at hand. Will's father died while mowing the lawn, so Will lives with his mother, younger sister and ancient grandmother in a comfortable but Spartan house. The Proudfoots belong to an austere world-wary religious sect called The Brethren, which forbids its members from watching television or movies and from listening to pop music. Somber sect leader Brother Joshua (Neil Dudgeon) has taken an interest in Will's mum and means to install himself as the new head of household.
Carter (Will Poulter) is a juvenile delinquent who's universally hated by staff members and students (when a teacher ejects him from class, his classmates cheer). He's a cheeky thief who terrorizes the old folks home adjacent to the mini-manse where he's nominally being reared by his rich snot of an older brother Lawrence (Ed Westwick); their mother is ensconced in Spain with the absentee owner of the elder-care center. While Carter is the sort of petty bully who passes down the abuse handed him, he's also a cinema-literate film brat - what he really wants to do is direct.
These two meet semi-cute: Carter is tossed from class and encounters Will - excused momentarily from class while his geography teacher shows an educational video - doodling in the hallway. He immediately begins knocking about the milquetoast, resulting in an incident that gets both boys sent to the headmistress. Carter manipulates Will into helping him with his current film project, an idea that Will embraces after being exposed to Carter's bootlegged copy of the Stallone action movie.
Soon Will is the designated stuntman, hurtling through the air, sliding down hillsides and leaping into lakes - neglecting to mention that he can't swim - as Carter captures it all on his brother's video camera. The process binds these two sad boys together even as it alienates Will from his devout family. The arrival of an absurdly cool French exchange student named Didier Revol (Jules Sitruk) changes the chemistry ofthe boys' school and eventually results in the inevitable rift in the new friendship, but the third act doesn't quite devolve into predictability.
While the key performances are terrific, what's best about the movie are the raw sequences allegedly shot by Carter and the animation-enhanced representations of Will's vivid imagination. The style of the former has some of the elaborate whimsy of Michael Gondry's work, while the latter seems descended from fantasy scenes in films like Peter Jackson's Beautiful Creatures (2000) and Danny Boyle's criminally underrated Millions (2004). With an astringent sweetness that engenders comparisons to John Hughes' 1980s work, Son of Rambow occasionally meanders into Wes Anderson's pop kitsch territory. It's an uneven film, but a special one that earns its ahs.
MovieStyle, Pages 39 on 06/06/2008