Son of RambowWritten and directed by Garth JenningsStarring Bill Milner, Will Poulter, Jules Sitruk and Ed WestwickRated PG-137
Goes well with: Almost Famous, The Mighty, Say Anything
I'm not a particularly forgiving film critic. I have a real problem with films that get sentimental for the sake of emotional manipulation and the inane scores that often accompany them. I get pissed off at screenplays that deviate from their true stories, and these days, it's almost impossible for me to watch a movie without nitpicking or quibbling over minor details. But once in a while, a film comes along that falls into those traps and still wins me over. Son of Rambow, which features two terrific first-time young actors, is one of those films.
Set in the 1980s in a small, dreary English town, the movie is centered on Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) and Lee Carter (Will Poulter), two young boys who are outsiders at school for very different reasons. Will is a member of the Plymouth Brethren, a strict religious order that, among other things, requires him to wait in the hallway whenever a video is played at school. That's where he meets Lee, the school's social pariah, who immediately gets in Will's face, sending both to the principal's office. They end up at Lee's house, where Will watches his first movie, a bootlegged copy of the 1982 Stallone action flick First Blood. Suddenly, a whole new world is revealed to this sheltered, naïve boy. The pair decide to make a movie, Son of Rambow, and the two previously friendless boys become friends.
But, of course, nothing's easy. Even as Will, whose father is dead, gets more and more into the world of the movie, casting himself as the son of Rambo, the elders of his sect see him straying from his faith. And Lee's only family, an emotionally abusive older brother (Ed Westwick), keeps him under his thumb. Worst of all, when Lee earns a week's suspension, the school's coolest French exchange student muscles in on the action, trying to take over the film and make himself the lead. Suddenly, Will is elevated to a place of popularity, and just as suddenly, Lee is on the outside looking in.
Now, this film has some problems. As Will and Lee are in crisis, Son of Rambow loses sight of the making of the movie inside the movie, and that's the most interesting part of all this. Worse, the entire affair gets manipulative and sentimental, something writer/director Garth Jennings has a history of doing, having turned The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a truly brilliant, utterly unsentimental book, into a sappy movie. But the two boys are so pathetic and appealing and strong actors that it's still a pleasure to watch the drama play out.
Will's challenges with his religious group and struggles to stay true to his lonely single mother (Jessica Stevenson) are terribly sad and painful, as are Lee's desperate attempts to please his brother. Poulter, as Lee, is a real find. At 15, he already has terrific comic timing and free and easy access to his emotions. While you find yourself focusing on the triumphs of Will, it's easy to overlook the hardships of Lee, so when you're reminded of them, it's heartbreaking. The two together are what make Son of Rambow so entertaining, because at its core, though it's about filmmaking and popularity and growing up, this is a movie that is really about the importance of friendship—sentimental as that might sound.