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May 12, 2008 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | May 12, 2008 |

At this point, making a coming-of-age movie and setting it in the 1980s no longer qualifies as making a (slightly) period film. The cyclical sounds of pop music and culture, the rise in prominence of filmmakers who were children then, the way that every generation of filmmakers must be necessity and convention exhume the corpses of its collective past and examine them on the silver screen as a kind of coping mechanism for maturity — all these things add up to the fact that writer-director Garth Jennings’ Son of Rambow is at once sweet and funny and complex and also unable to break free from the confines of its recreated era. The bands of today ape the sounds of the bands then; hell, even Sylvester Stallone has dragged himself out of deserved retirement and paraded gamely across multiplexes for another installment in the Rambo franchise. Son of Rambow feels both of its time and almost as if it’s playing out in modern day as nothing more than a host of metareferences and ideas about the 1980s that never do more than reinforce the easy visual clich├ęs that mean you’re watching a movie set in the 1980s. That’s ultimately the film’s biggest problem, seeping into everything from design to the screenplay: Son of Rambow is, underneath it all, an idea of a film instead of the film itself, a series of interlocking scenes and characters that resemble a story but wind up feeling occasionally disconnected, as if Jennings wanted nothing more than pontificate on the hypotheticals of making a movie about two young boys learning the perils of pubescent friendship instead of going all the way and making them real.

Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) is a lonely boy of 10 or 11 whose family are members of the Plymouth Brethren, a conservative nondenominational sect against whose rules Will is beginning to chafe. They stage a scripture reading on afternoon outside a theater where First Blood is playing, presumably to alert passersby of the film’s inherently base qualities. Meanwhile, inside the theater, Lee Carter (Will Poulter) is watching the movie while filming it on his brother’s video camera and idly smoking a cigarette. The parallel between the boys is clear — they’re both outsiders trying to fit in while wishing they belonged — and before long, they run into each other at school. When Will’s science class watches a documentary, Will quietly excuses himself to sit in the hall, since he’s forbidden to watch TV, and once he’s out there he opens his book of drawings and again immerses himself in the dense fictional world he uses as an escape from the real one. A few doors down, Lee is kicked out of class (to the cheers of the other kids) for causing trouble, but he soon spots Will and recognizes and easy mark. Lee is the kind of cocky, impossibly charismatic little fiend who torments teachers and classmates alike and does his best to raise hell, while Will is meek and shy and happy to play with his flipbooks and imagine himself the hero in an epic story that will never be told. The boys get into a scuffle in the hall, and Lee tells Will he’ll take the heat from the headmistress as long as Will agrees to be the stuntman in the movie Lee’s making for a competition on BBC’s “Screen Test.” Will’s far too trusting to see that Lee can only get people to hang out with him by manipulating them into it, and of course he can’t see the sadness in Lee’s life that drives him to be like this: Lee wants nothing more than the love of his older brother, who does nothing but boss the little boy around and beat him up. Jennings does a good job at tossing the boys together, aided greatly by the chemistry between the talented young actors, but it’s when he attempts to broaden the story that it becomes ungainly and off balance.

Will’s fascination with Lee grows when he sees the bootleg copy of First Blood, inspiring him to generate a story for Lee’s movie in which Will will play the son of Rambo on the search for his warrior father, who’s been kidnapped by an evil scarecrow and a flying dog. (It makes sense to Will.) Will’s working through his feelings about his own father, who died not long before from an aneurysm, as well as exploring the world that the Brethren have forbidden him to experience, but Jennings never makes the stakes high enough to lend the proper weight to Will’s quasi-apostasy or acceptance of his father’s fate. Will’s mother, Mary (Jessica Stevenson), attempts to discipline Will and get him back on the straight and narrow, going so far as to let Brother Joshua (Neil Dudgeon) take Will to a couple extra prayer meetings and even try to take him away for a few days to ostensibly talk some sense into him. But Will never has any qualms about turning his back on his faith: The biggest drag about the prayer meeting is that he misses a day of shooting, and when Joshua shows up to take him out of town, Will yells that Joshua isn’t his father before bolting for the woods. There’s nothing at all wrong with Will’s love of movies and storytelling and how it draws him away from what he used to be and into what he’ll become, but Jennings sets Will up in a consequence-free environment, effectively deflating any potential dramatic conflict that could arise from Will’s having to decide which master to serve.

Still, Milner and Poulter carry the film better than any other child actors could. Poulter is both watchable and lamentable as the school bully who’s nervous about changing enough to let in the outside world, while Milner is the perfect mixture of sweet energy and a desire to please all and do right that always gets mangled by the cruel realities of the world. And Jennings draws a nicely nuanced performance from them both, right down to the way they “act” stiffly in their own film but come across so easily in the larger story. Yet for all its charms, Son of Rambow never shakes the feeling that it’s going over tilled ground, breathing life into the same ideas that inform the genre without quite making them its own.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

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Son of Rambow / Daniel Carlson

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