Director: Garth Jennings
Starring: Bill Milner, Will Poulter, Jules Sitruk, Jessica Stevenson, Neil Dudgeon, Jules Sitruk, Anna Wing, Ed Westwick
Running Time: 96 min.
*** (out of ****)
There’s this trend that’s been going on for a while now, but lately it seems to be happening a lot more. A little independent movie debuts on the festival circuit, earns rave reviews then after it gets a wide release audiences can’t figure out what all that massive hype was about. Remember 1996’s The Spitfire Grill? Neither do I. We just saw it happen recently with the release of Hamlet 2, a movie many have complained wasn’t nearly as good as they were led to believe.
Do Canadians and The French have worse taste than us? Are we just dumb? Is Robert Redford serving Kool-Aid in Park City? These questions may remain unanswered but as I watched Garth Jennings’ retro coming-of-age comedy, Son of Rambow I found myself mentally name-checking all the films it contained traces of, all of which are vastly superior; The Breakfast Club, Chariots of Fire, Donnie Darko, Bridge to Terabithia, Be Kind, Rewind. Well, okay, maybe that last one isn’t vastly superior.
On the surface it seems strange that such a small, personal work comes from the director of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (a film I’m in the minority for loving), but upon closer examination it makes perfect sense. This doesn’t have the creative punch of that misunderstood movie but it has the same quirky, off beat sense of humor, a kind of humor I’m starting to think fewer and fewer audiences appreciate. The drawback of seeing too many movies is that it can make you cynical and more resistant to letting a film take you the places it wants to. Son of Rambow is somewhat of a mess and not nearly as good as I was expecting, but it’s one made with a lot of heart and it hits the important notes well enough that I have to at least give it a recommendation. The filmmakers’ love not only for movies, but also growing up, shine through in just about every nostalgic frame of this admittedly uneven picture.
In 1980’s Britain, quiet, reserved youngster Will (Bill Milner) is forbidden to watch films or television as a member of the Plymouth Brethren religious sect. Since the death of his father, His mother (Jessica Stevenson) has a new man in her life (Neil Digeon), a pompous, judgmental do-gooder for whom he has no respect. At school Will has a chance encounter with Lee (Will Poulter), a school bully who worships his older brother Lawrence (Gossip Girl’s Ed Westwick), waiting on him hand and foot despite the fact he’s treated like garbage for his efforts. A reluctant friendship begins between the two boys when Lee introduces Will to his first feature film, a pirated VHS copy of First Blood. Soon they’re making their own home video, “Son of Rambow” in hopes of entering it into a young filmmaker competition. Their attempts to keep this a secret from Will’s strict family as well as prevent other outside forces from hampering their creativity lead to a special friendship that is tested in occasionally surprising ways.
Besides just being set in the 1980’s, Son of Rambow is a film that looks and feels like it was actually MADE in the 1980’s, recalling the innocence and intelligence of some of those classic John Hughes comedies. Whether you find an approach like that subversively funny or pretentious will likely dictate your feelings on the movie. For the first 15 minutes I didn’t know what Jennings had on his mind (if anything) and was sure I’d hate it. But almost halfway through it won me over. Despite starting sluggishly and being tough to warm up to, the film eventually finds its voice and introduce some intelligent ideas, specifically concerning the boys’ relationships with their families. Nearly all of its success can be attributed to the performances given by the two young actors who have never even acted in a major motion picture before. Milner and especially Poulter make their transformations throughout the course of their home video adventure believable and I ended up really caring what happened to both of them.
This is primarily Will’s story, as he must come to terms with his strict religious upbringing and I liked how his mother and her boyfriend weren’t portrayed as disconnected lunatics but as people who truly believe they’re doing the right thing. It seems Jennings actually took their stance into account rather than just portraying them as cartoonish oafs out to punish the kid, or even worse, as deranged cult members. Lee’s story is handled equally well and his emotionally distant and at times psychologically abusive brother turns from being an afterthought to a key player by the end of the film. And it’s a good thing Westwick can stare coldly with the best of them because that’s his primary job here.
The film also benefits from a hilarious sub-plot involving French foreign exchange student Didier (Jules Sitruk) who captivates his classmates and tries to wrestle control of the boys’ production. Jennings uses the character a chance to throw in some classic music and fashions of the times and generally poke fun at the ‘80’s in a loving way. There was also an interesting payoff to it, proving that coolness really is in the eye of the beholder. You’re either on board with something like this or you’re not, which is pretty much the story with the entire picture. It doesn't reinvent the wheel but it does what it needs to in a workmanlike manner despite dragging at points and featuring very few surprises. It’s the kind of movie that doesn’t quite deserve the label of “independent gem” but is far from a waste of time.
Jennings, in addition to directing, wrote the script based partially on his own experiences as a youth and co-produced it with Nick Goldsmith (a team known collectively under the moniker of “Hammer and Tongs”). It’s worth noting that while the film falls way short of the hype surrounding it and doesn’t contain anywhere close to the imaginative vision of Hitchhikers (nor does it need to), this is only Jennings second feature. He’s already proven he’s a great storyteller and has a unique sense of humor even when dealing with run-of-the-mill material. In that sense, his films are kind of reminiscent of other quirky former music video directors like Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze and it wouldn’t surprise me if he has a really great film in him somewhere. His first two weren’t it, but he’s definitely someone to keep an eye on. Son of Rambow may only just be a sweet, predictable coming of age tale, but that ends up being enough.