Written and directed by Garth Jennings (Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy), his sophomore project Son of Rambow is a much smaller, more restrained effort. Without an obsessive fanbase and massive expectation weighing down on him, Jennings finds his stride using the hilarious and sweet personal story of two boys with one seemingly simple mission.
It’s the summer of 1983 and ten year old Will Proudfoot is a member of the Plymouth Brethren, a strict Evangelical movement which discourages mixing with non-believers and frowns upon all forms of modern entertainment. So instead he spends his days hiding out in his dead father’s garden shed letting his imagination run wild in the form of elaborate and colorful murals on the pages of his bible. It is when waiting outside class one day while his classmates watch an educational video, that he encounters Lee Carter: a young tearaway student with dreams of making his own home video version of famous Rambo flick First Blood, for submission to a TV competition for budding film makers.
After bailing Will out of potential trouble resulting from an accident, Lee demands that as payment for saving him, Will must help him film his movie masterpiece. It is during this process that Will gets his first taste of TV and cinema in the form of Lee’s pirate copy of First Blood and soon his inventive imagination goes in to overdrive as he starts to style himself as the “Son of Rambo”. Soon what started as one small boy’s dream project spirals in to an out of control adventure as an unlikely friendship of highs and lows is formed between the two.
Jennings hasn’t just made a touching and funny coming of age story about friendship, the Son of Rambow is a love letter to what it is, or should be, to be a child: a place where imagination and fun can be used as a shield them from the grim realities of the growing up in the real world. Everyplace, from a farmer’s field to a nursing home, is a blank canvas of exciting possibilities. While Will uses his imagination to escape the mundane and increasingly restricted life his religion tries to impose on him, Lee uses it to escape the harsh consequences of a broken home. It is through these shared imaginations that the two unlikely boys bond and through their different realities have that bond tested.
Jennings isn’t afraid to show this imagination either, and as Will’s imagination breaks free we see his mind start to transform such dull things as a field in to a battlefield full of crayon drawn rockets and explosions. In one breathtaking scene we watch an entire surreal dream sequence where, using a mixture of live-action and chalkboard like animation, Will gets to act out his “Son of Rambo” action adventure in dizzying detail. It sounds bizarre, but if you can leave the cynicism of adulthood at the door and remember yourself as a ten year old child, it becomes something you can relate to, rather than a gimmick.
Everything about the movie clicks in this way, despite the sometimes heightened reality used for comedy effect. The stunts the boys perform are just far enough over the top to be silly without being ridiculous and there’s an at-first bizarre subplot involving exchange students which crashes in to the main storyline two-thirds in, providing much needed testing of the boys’ new relationship, while deftly never resorting to casting any of the younger characters as unsympathetic villains.
The two boys chosen for the leads carry themselves remarkably well, despite not being professional actors. In fact that may be what allows them to portray these characters so well. They lack the creepy artifice of those “engineered” child actors from Hollywood like Dakota Fanning.
Son of Rambow will connect with anyone whose childhood was more about running through the woods re-enacting their favorite films and TV shows with good friends, than texting BFFs on cell phones and playing Grand Theft Auto in a dark room for 12 hours straight. In fact, many of the references thoughout the film jogged long forgotten memories in myself of life growing up back in the days of the seemingly endless summers and carefree 80s innocence. If you don’t come out of Son of Rambow feeling good about life, reliving those bygone days of carefree childhood goofing off while humming the tune of closing credits song Close To Me by The Cure, then declare your inner child well and truly dead. It is a nostalgia trip well worth taking.