Son Of Rambow review

“I’m trained to ignore pain and live off the land.” No, not Sylvester Stallone offering a tight-jawed mumble in Rambo, currently playing at a cinema near you. The kid (yes, kid) squeaking out this and other memorable lines with infectious exuberance is 11-year-old novice Bill Milner, here playing Will Proudfoot, aka the son of Rambow. More on how innocent, introspective Will comes to essay the sprog of First Blood’s fucked-up ’Nam vet later. For now, all you need to know is that this sheltered member of a religious brethren has his school tie secured around his head and his pipe-cleaner arms thrust heroically from a flapping muscle vest. It’s funny. And sweet, poignant, wistful…

All adjectives that can be applied to Garth Jennings’ second movie as director, first as writer, following the half-decent fist he made of adapting Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Watch Son Of Rambow with its intimate, personal storytelling, lo-fi visuals and ketchup effects and you won’t be surprised to learn that it was intended as Jennings’ first film. That he chose to return to it after being handed the prestigious Galaxy gig tells you just how much it means to him, for it’s a tale spun from his own childhood, specific to ’80s England but universal in themes and emotions.

The story is simple, unpretentious. Polite Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) meets wild child Lee Carter (Will Poulter) and the mismatched pair form an affecting friendship. Both are loners, from broken families – Will’s dad died “mowing the lawn”, Lee is being raised by a bullying older brother – and together they fill their days tearing round the countryside, filming mini-masterpiece Son Of Rambow on video. This shabby, sincere reimagining of First Blood (playing at the local Rex cinema) is Lee’s plan, our lovable gobshite eyeing first prize at the BBC’s Screen Test filmmaking contest and, perhaps, escape (though Jennings’ script is never so crude as to vocalise such hazy, unconscious thoughts). Will, who spies Sly’s illicit antics on pirate video, the shaky images unloosing his imagination, is drafted in as star and stuntman, a scrawny hero who swings into lakes and catapults from trees. There are, of course, repercussions to his clandestine actions. But the brethren are about to discover that they shouldn’t push this gentle, respectful boy; he’ll give them a war they wouldn’t believe…

Modest in scale but mighty in heart, Son Of Rambow is far from perfect but consistently displays a rough-hewn, ramshackle charm that’s impossible to resist. For while forays into outlandish, even cartoonish territory in search of coughed-up laughs are ill-advised, Rambow’s endearing blend of naturalism, jaunty humour and hard-earned sentiment recall the beguiling movies of Bill Forsyth and Shane Meadows, minus the lyricism.

One rather bizarre cock-up aside (a character likens himself to Patrick Swayze a year before The Outsiders opens, five years before the wiry mullethead becomes a household name), Son Of Rambow is set very recognisably in the early ’80s. It’s to Jennings’ credit that the music (Depeche Mode’s ‘I Just Can’t Get Enough’), period detail (Space Dust, the rumpled garb of the geography teacher) and dialogue (“Skill”, “Spazzy”) feel organic first, droll second, and that the movie’s indie eccentricities are carefully embedded in story, character and emotion. It’s this foundation of truth that lends the closing scenes, for all their manipulation, a real kick, with even peripheral, seemingly two-dimensional characters disclosing unexpected layers to snag viewers’ empathy.

Delayed a release in the UK to allow it to tie in with the fourth Rambo outing, Jennings’ coming-of-ager now arrives after Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind. Like that similarly humble comedy-drama, Son Of Rambow is a twinkle-eyed gaze at the joys of DIY filmmaking, replete with sly, spry asides on star power, the cult of celebrity and auterist cinema vs filmmaking by committee. It even finds time to poke fun at the French New Wave courtesy of foreign exchange student Didier ( Jules Sitruk). First and foremost, though, this shoestring charmer is an ode to the wonder of friendship and the power of imagination, a salute to the courage and chutzpah of the underdog. Son of Rambo? Son of Rocky, more like.

Flying dogs, animated dreams, evil scarecrows. It could have cloyed, but Jennings takes the irk out of quirk by rooting his flights of fancy in a mundane world. A pint-sized triumph.

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