Son of Rambow (United Kingdom, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's said one never forget the first time - first love, first kiss, first movie. That's certainly the case in Son of Rambow, in which one character's first cinematic experience, First Blood, opens up a world of new possibilities he had never dreamt of in his previously sheltered existence. The resulting tale of friendship and family touches plenty of crowd-pleasing buttons but comes across as more than a little derivative. The filmmakers have taken the familiar "school outsider climbs to the top of the social heap" storyline and given it a few new wrinkles, but not so many that one can't glimpse John Hughes peeking through the chinks. Son of Rambow not only takes place in the '80s, it feels like it was made in the '80s.

The film's central character is Will (Bill Milner), a young boy whose family belongs to a fundamentalist religious sect that has strict rules about worldly activities: no TV, no movies. The limitations on Will's leisure hours have not diminished his imagination. He draws pictures of dragons and monsters and concocts stories of fantastic heroism. One day in school, fate throws him into the path of bad seed Carter (Will Poulter), who enjoys picking on the younger, smaller boy (just as he is picked on by his older brother). The two become friends of a sort and, one day while at Carter's house, Will sees his first movie: a pirated copy of First Blood. Suddenly, he becomes obsessed with "Rambow" and he and Carter begin making their own Rambow-themed movie. Their activity makes them the talk of the school and attracts the attention of Didier (Jules Sitruk), the ultra-popular French exchange student. With him on board, the door to being "cool" opens wide to Will. But his mother (Jessica Stevenson) senses her son is being drawn into worldly activities and asks a church friend (Neil Digeon) to stage an intervention.

Son of Rambow possesses a low-key charm but its lack of imagination leeches away some of the feel-good quality. Nostalgia is a nice element to include in a movie but it's not the best foundation for one. Director Garth Jennings wants us to experience Will's awakening alongside him as his previously sheltered world opens up to reveal wondrous things, but the techniques he employs to achieve this, which include dream/fantasy sequences and some crude animation, don't succeed. If anything, they make Son of Rambow appear a little amateurish.

The plot offers three overlapping storylines, none of which provides anything new or interesting. There's the mismatched buddy relationship between wallflower Will and brash Carter; the thou-shalt-not-partake-of-the-flesh home life aspect, and the Can't Buy Me Love ascension to popularity. To illustrate how interchangeable the parts are in a movie like this, if Carter had been a girl, this would have been a formulaic romantic comedy. The stuff about film appreciation and imagination are nice touches but they're not organic to the story. Appealing as they might be for movie buffs, they don't add enough to fill out a too-lean narrative.

The lead actors, Bill Milner and Will Poulter, are both convincing. This is impressive, since Son of Rambow represents the first credit for both. Jennings does a good job directing him - there are none of those awkward moments that often accompany performances by new or inexperienced thespians. The adults are primarily portrayed by low profile British character actors. While a few of these (Jessica Stevenson, Anna Wing) are well-known in England, their international recognition factor is fairly low. (Although Stevenson's recent appearance in a two-part Doctor Who episode may damage her anonymity.)

It's tough to dislike Son of Rambow; the movie is too good-natured to target with slings and arrows. Nevertheless, the pre-fabricated feel and obligatory sense of character development may leave some viewers feeling a little deflated by the time all the mandatory happy ending has arrived. The tone is light and unpretentious and it offers an opportunity for some '80s reminiscing. Ultimately, however, it's forgettable, disposable entertainment.

Son of Rambow (United Kingdom, 2007)

Director: Garth Jennings
Cast: Bill Milner, Will Poulter, Jules Sitruk, Jessica Stevenson, Neil Dudgeon, Anna Wing
Screenplay: Garth Jennings
Cinematography: Jess Hall
Music: Joby Talbot
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Vantage
Run Time: 1:36
U.S. Release Date: 2008-05-02
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1