Judge Dan Mancini has been trained to eat things that would make a billy goat puke.
Make believe. Not war.
Son of Rambow is a charming little movie that avoids the cutesy meta-narrative excesses a brief synopsis of its plot might suggest. It impresses with a carefully structured, almost literary, screenplay and ace performances by child actors Bill Milner and Will Poulter. Unfortunately, it undermines its many good qualities with a final reel that resorts to saccharine emotional manipulation instead of doing the harder, more disciplined work of adequately resolving the layers of themes and subplots with which it presents us.
Set in England in the early 1980s, the movie tells the tale of Will Proudfoot (Milner), a young boy whose imagination bucks the sheltered life he leads because his widowed mother (Jessica Hynes, Spaced) is a member of a controlling, isolationist religious sect called the Brethren. Will is a nerdy kid who lives inside his own head, playing secret games with pine cones and drawing elaborate fantasies on the pages of his Bible with markers and colored pencils.
One day while Will is waiting in the hallway at school while his classmates watch a documentary video (he's not allowed to watch TV), he meets school troublemaker Lee Carter (Poulter), who's been banished to the hallway for less principled reasons. Lee, who lives with his older brother while his mother is off with her boyfriend in Spain, spends his days smoking cigarettes, playing pranks, and shooting bootleg videos at the local theater. Carter sees Will as a naïve dupe easily manipulated into doing the stunt work for a short film he's making for submission to a television game show. Will is fascinated by Lee's colorful world—particularly after he watches a bootlegged copy of the American action film, First Blood. An uneasy friendship ensues. Soon, the boys are shooting an original story by Will: Son of Rambow, in which the offspring of the world's most butt-kicking Vietnam veteran must rescue his old man from the clutches of an evil scarecrow whose weapons include a flying dog with machine guns mounted on its metal wings.
Meanwhile the entire school is thrown into a frenzy by the arrival of a French foreign exchange student, Didier Revol (Jules Sitruk, I, Cesar), who dresses like a member of Duran Duran and exudes a Fonzie-like self-confidence. When Didier decides he wants to act in the boys' film, the project becomes the epicenter of cool among their classmates. Suddenly, Will is rubbing elbows with kids who'd previously ignored him, while Lee is annoyed that making the movie is no longer about their friendship.
Son of Rambow succeeds through much of its running time, piling on quirky characters and situations but avoiding the self-congratulatory pretension that's become all too common in the art house lately (I'm looking at you, Juno). The Didier subplot even evokes something of the low comedy of '80s writer-director Savage Steve Holland, both because Didier is a French foreign exchange student like Diane Franklin's character in Holland's Better Off Dead and because the mesmeric effect of Didier's cool on the entire student body of Will's school expertly mimics Holland's patented brand of teenage theater of the absurd.
Despite doses of the absurd, the movie seriously explores the effect of absentee fathers on the lives of young boys. Their shared fatherlessness is the true basis of Will and Lee's friendship. They have little else in common. Will's dead father has been replaced with an oppressive and emotionally remote religious community. Lee's old man simply disappeared, leaving the boy's older brother, himself fatherless, to be an ill-equipped substitute father-figure. That the duo would make a movie about the son of an action hero rescuing his old man from a vicious scarecrow has Jungian reverberations that would maybe be too obvious if not for Son of Rambow's charm.
It's unfortunate that the movie's mostly deft and funny handling of this compelling subject-matter is undercut by a sugary and manipulative finale. Son of Rambow makes a critical mistake by shoehorning in an easy solution where none exists in life, as if the flickering images on a movie screen have the power to heal the human soul or fill voids left by death or broken relationships. Worse yet, the clunky writing in the movie's last act proves too much for Milner and Poulter. Their performances are stellar across the rest of the movie, but they don't have the skill or experience to sell us on material that is patently false.
Paramount has done fine work in bringing Son of Rambow to DVD. The 2.35:1 anamorphically-enhanced transfer is a strong presentation of Jess Hall's (Hot Fuzz) beautiful cinematography. Detail is sharp, colors are accurate, and blacks are deep and rich.
The Dolby 5.1 surround audio track is a clean presentation of an unelaborate source. It won't knock your socks off, but you won't be annoyed by source defects or an off mix, either.
Along with the feature, the disc contains a commentary track by writer-director Garth Jennings, producer Nick Goldsmith, and Milner and Poulter. The track is more fun than informative, as Jennings plays music in the background, jokes around with his child stars, and reminisces about his own childhood.
"Boys Will Be Boys" (26:00) is a fairly standard making-of featurette. The inspiration for Son of Rambow, "Aaron" is an 11-minute short action film made by Garth Jennings when he was a boy. Finally, there is another surprisingly clever and entertaining action-packed home video that won a contest hosted by the Son of Rambow website. It runs just shy of six minutes.
Son of Rambow is either an all-ages entertainment with a cop-out ending, or a kids' movie that wrestles with themes too sophisticated for its own good. It has a lot to offer, but a quick fade in the home stretch makes it difficult to recommend. If you're interested in a smart, creative, family-friendly movie with excellent performances by young actors, give it a rent. It's not a movie you're likely to watch again and again.
Son of Rambow is released with time served.
Editor's Note: Son of Rambow is only available for purchase at Best Buy. Why? Ask Paramount executives. We don't understand it either.
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