Thursday, May 29, 2008

Son of Rambow: This Son also rises

Son of Rambow (2007) • View trailer for Son of Rambow
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for underage smoking and profanity, and youthful bad behavior
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.29.08
Buy DVD: Son of Rambow • Buy Blu-Ray: Son of Rambow [Blu-ray]

I often wonder why some parents seem to have repressed the casual cruelties of childhood.

Why else would they stack the deck so badly against their own kids?
When one of their home-grown "special effects" — a dog statue fastened to a
massive kite — is carried off by a particularly strong gust of wind, it drags an
increasingly frantic Lee (Will Poulter, left) and Will (Bill Milner) along in its

Bad enough that 11-year-old Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) has been saddled with such an impossible label by parents who clearly invented the surname as one of the tenets of their overly repressive, whacked-out approach to religion. But then Will's mother — his father having died unexpectedly, years earlier — sends him to public school with strict admonitions against being exposed to any sort of music or television, again due to the puritanical teachings of "The Brethren."

That means Will has to leave his classroom — and sit, isolated, in the hallway — every time the teacher shows an educational film.

Small wonder the boy has taken refuge in his imagination, and has meticulously scribbled flip-book images and other colorful drawings in the margins and every inch of white space of his massive Bible.

The setting is the depressed working-class England of 1982. Writer/director Garth Jennings deftly sketches this portrait of a lost and lonely little boy in the opening scenes of Son of Rambow, a movie whose goofy title — while absolutely appropriate — gives little indication of the bittersweet joys to be contained within.

Deliberately filmed with a low-tech style that mimics the story soon to be told, Jennings' charming, frequently hilarious and often heartbreaking coming-of-age saga bears strong echoes of other gleefully eccentric films that came out at roughly the time this story is set: 1981's Gregory's Girl and 1985's My Life As a Dog.

Will's home life is sepulchral: The house is quiet as a tomb, he shares his bedroom with an infirm grandmother, and his younger sister has naught but jigsaw puzzles for entertainment. All three of these women dress as if they live in an Amish community, and Will's mother (Jessica Stevenson) has an unhealthy willingness to take her marching orders from Joshua (Neil Dudgeon), a member of The Brethren who clearly wishes to become part of this fractured family.

Everything changes in a heartbeat for Will one day, when one of his enforced school hallway sojourns causes him to be noticed by the institution's rebellious tear- away, Lee Carter (Will Poulter).

Aggressively disliked by everybody and clearly proud of the mischief he creates, Lee sees Will as an easy mark for persecution ... but, oddly, that particular desire fades rather quickly in the larger, much more aggressive boy.

Will's too trusting, too easy a target. More to the point, Will's so delighted to have been noticed by anybody that he immediately regards "Lee Carter" — Will always uses the other boy's full name — as a friend, despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

And that, Lee quickly realizes, is far more valuable than a victim.

We soon discover that Lee's behavior is a product of similar loneliness: He lives with his contemptuous older brother, Lawrence (Ed Westwick), in the lavish back rooms of a massive estate mostly used as a home for the elderly. Lawrence has no time for Lee, just as their rich, jet-setting (and forever absent) parents have no time for either son.

Lee spends all his home time serving as cook, cleaner and general dogsbody for his brother, whom he worships ... a fact that doesn't seem to register with Lawrence, who delights solely in ordering the punk kid about.

Such orders include sneaking a bulky video camera (1982, remember) into a movie theater and bringing home an illegal bootleg copy of First Blood. But the movie inspires Lee in an entirely different direction; he decides to "borrow" the camera — Lawrence never pays attention anyway — and make his own homegrown adaptation.

Will, for his part, chances to see the entire film while visiting Lee's home for the first time. To say that it changes the boy's life would be an understatement; of all the flicks to serve as his entry to pop culture, this one doesn't just open his eyes. It sears his very brain, as if somebody had forced a branding iron into his head.

And he cheerfully agrees to be the star of Lee's fledgling movie ... which obviously means sneaking out of the house, ditching services with The Brethren and breathing not a word of such behavior to his mother.

These early sequences are hilarious, as Lee fabricates ever-more-dangerous stunts to inflict on Will, but always with available junk or machinery; the other boy, made fearless by his new awareness of the world, accepts all challenges. (My favorite occurs when Will lets himself get hurled backwards after taking the full, close-up force of a farm's industrial sprinkler blast to the chest.)

Much as this plotline drives Son of Rambow, Jennings' film has additional joys in its side-stories. As with Bill Forsyth's Gregory's Girl, a host of supporting school characters wander through this narrative, none more crucial than the French foreign-exchange students who arrive just as Lee and Will are becoming inseparable.

Most of these newcomers are quiet and uncertain, but one departs the bus with a flourish: the jaw-droppingly exotic Didier (Jules Sitruk), dressed with such deliberately aggressive ambiguity that it's difficult to determine that he's a boy.

But he's more than boy enough for all the upper-level girls in Lee and Will's school, who soon are standing in line for an opportunity to lock lips with this guy who seems to be from another planet ... a process stage-managed by Didier's new posse of adoring British lads.

Didier eventually learns of the movie being made, and circumstances allow him to believe that the amiable Will is the driving force, rather than the belligerent Lee. Suddenly wafted into a level of acceptance that makes him giddy, Will allows himself to be seduced by this new popularity ... a change of dynamic that does not go unnoticed by the increasingly abandoned Lee.

Although it seems I've spent a great deal of time on plot exposition, I've barely scratched the surface; what follows plays on the nature of friendship, family and the constant struggle to fit in. Jennings' script wanders a bit, and his focus strays; toward the middle, the film briefly loses its way as Didier's character becomes too prominent.

But for the most part, this tender saga is dead-on with respect to its depiction of that seminal moment when two little boys take their first step toward maturity.

The film's raw, realistic and kitchen-sink approach — which makes the story seem that much more real — is amplified by Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith's decision to cast total unknowns as their leads. Neither Milner nor Poulter had acted before, and their fresh performances here are unerringly natural.

Poulter is every inch the combative little scamp, but he's also up for the tougher scenes, when Lee's true emotions finally come flooding out. Milner, for his part, wanders forlornly through the early scenes as though drugged: Then, watching his inner light begin to blaze — his eyes and mouth taking on new animation — is as magical as seeing a spring flower unfold.

Jennings and Goldsmith, collectively known as "Hammer & Tongs," have an interesting history. They've collaborated on countless British TV commercials and music videos, and they planned Son of Rambow as their feature film debut. But fate and a thumping big budget intervened, and they found themselves tagged to bring Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy to the big screen.

Although not entirely successful with Adams' fans, Hitchhiker was a quite respectable entry to the movie biz, so Jennings and Goldsmith then returned to their original project. No doubt the Son of Rambow that has emerged now benefits from their greater experience, and Jennings certainly builds his story to a great payoff.

A couple of great payoffs, actually. The obvious one is a real tear-jerker, but the subtler one is much more satisfying: our unexpected realization that nerd-dom is only in the eye of the beholder, and that — as always — one man's trash is another man's treasure.

I'd love to think Son of Rambow will enjoy the slowly building momentum My Life As a Dog experienced two decades ago, but Paramount Vantage isn't throwing much money into the publicity campaign.

That leaves it up to us...

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