Writer-director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith ("Hammer & Tongs", collectively) bring their inventive creativity to this pet project, set in a nostalgia-heavy summer of the early-'80s. As music video creators (they did Blur's "Coffee & TV" with the walking milk carton), they're kind of Britain's answer to Michel Gondry -- sharing the French director's fondness for homespun ingenuity. On paper, Hammer & Tongs were the perfect duo to take on The Hitchhikers' Guide To The Galaxy's eccentricity, but their 2005 movie adaptation of Douglas Adams' revered sci-fi comedy just didn't click...
Son Of Rambow (misspelled for legal reasons) is a definite step back in terms of scale and complexity for the pair, but it's probably the stepping stone they should have made before tackling Douglas' masterpiece.
The story would appear to contain elements of the filmmakers' own movie-making childhood, as wannabe director Lee Carter (Will Poulter) steals his video-pirating brother's camera and persuades Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) to help him win a film competition. As is tradition, the kids are opposites: Lee has no family beyond his bullying older brother Lawrence (Ed Westwick) and consequently lacking much discipline. Will's mother (Jessica Stevenson) is part of a strict religious group, meaning he's banned from watching television, and the Proudfoots are stifled by the dinner table presence of pious Brother Joshua (Neil Dudgeon).
The coming-of-age begins in earnest at Lee's house, after Will watches a pirated copy of First Blood (the first Rambo movie from 1982) and the experience proves revelatory -- sending his already active imagination into overdrive. Indeed, Sylvester Stallone's violent classic inspires the boys to create their own no-budget "spin-off"; their antics quickly attracting the attention of super-cool French exchange student Didier (Jules Sitruk) and other classmates.
Like the recent Be Kind Rewind, Son Of Rambow is all about the healing power of filmmaking -- by virtue of how it gives people a focus and goal to achieve as a team. The production of their mini-epic gives Will and Lee credibility with the older kids (love the Sixth Form Common Room scene), grants them acceptance from their peers, widens their imaginations, inspires friendships, and gradually breaks down the barriers each boy has with their dysfunctional families.
Performances are smart and believable, particularly from the two child leads (Proudfoot and Poulter) who are incredibly natural in front of the camera despite their inexperience. Jenning clearly has a rapport with his child stars, as there are no wooden performances that sometimes afflict films with adolescent casts. Kids are a great window into filmed reality, as you're often too aware that adult actors are "only pretending" (and often famous celebs). It's just easier to accept fictional reality through the eyes of unknown youngsters.
The biggest joy of Son Of Rambow lies in its sense of time and place. For anyone who grew up in the '80s, this film will prick plenty of pop-culture memories. The hairstyles, clothes and music are obvious, but who else remembers the fad for licking tattoos onto your arm, or handshaking with open cuts to become "blood brothers" in a pre-AIDS landscape? The background detail and ambience is incredibly accurate throughout; so much so that Son Of Rambow often resembles a genuine '80s film that's been hidden away for 25 years and completed with modern FX after a quick remastering.
It's easy to recommend Son Of Rambow, thanks to the strong performances, resourceful filming style and sense of heart, but it's not entirely successful. The supporting plot with Will's mother and her religious beliefs never manages to elicit much interest, it drags in places despite being a mere 96-minutes long, and the big finale doesn't provide the heart swelling punch you've been hoping for. Consequently, while the journey is great fun and particularly delightful for Brits born between 1975-80, I ended up respecting Son Of Rambow's existence and intentions, but I couldn't quite love it.