Son of Rambow
A Film Directed and Written by Garth Jennings

The new film from Garth Jennings (which he also wrote) is an often amusing and likeable tale of “growing up.” It is a theme that has been mined endlessly on film, from the bleakness of Les Quatre Cents Coups (400 Blows) and the poignancy of River’s Edge, to the fantasy of Hook (or any of the Peter Pan variants) and the shameless gag-mongering of Superbad.

But originality isn’t the key to effectively re-telling this archetypal human story, conviction is, and that is what makes Jennings’s version work. It doesn’t work perfectly, by any means. Some of the situations and relationships - particularly that between Lee and his brother - are shortchanged, reducing them to little more than cliché - a jarring lapse when that relationship becomes a pivot for part of the resolution of the plot. Some of the dialogue is stiff and artificial, and the “third act” conclusion is so neat and complete as to seem manipulative.

But, happily, all these faults can be fairly elided over because of the wonderful central performances by Bill Milner and Will Poulter as the two friends, Will Proudfoot and Lee Carter, whose relationship transforms them both - not to mention a scene-stealing supporting presence by Jules Sitruk as French exchange student Didier Revol. It’s not that one fails to notice that the landmarks on the journey are awfully familiar, but rather that the company is so charming that one is less conscious of the familiarity and to an extent sees the landscape freshly through new eyes.

Of course, as always when working with very young actors like these, it is the director who must guide them through the emotional voyage, evoke convincing performances and oversee the stitching together of the scenes and shots into a unified whole. That is where Son of Rambow - despite its shortcomings - really shines.

The central character is Will. He lives with his widowed mother and young sister in a home overshadowed by the rigorous discipline of a sect known as “The Bretheren,” which has overtones of a number of Anabaptist denominations. This fictional version is characterized by archaic clothing, an exaggerated “modesty” of dress, especially for women; the “church family” as the center of a life in which the social and the Religious are inseparably intertwined; and selective rejection of modern technology.

But Will is “main-streamed” in a public school and although he is allowed to leave the classroom when lessons include video presentations, he is inevitably exposed to “the World.” It is, ironically, his exemption from having to view videos - for his ostensible “protection” - that brings him into contact with incorrigible “bad boy” Lee, as both - for very different reasons -are sent out of class to sit in the corridor.

Lee’s bumptious self-confidence and rebellious daring both frighten and fascinate Will. At the same time, Lee sees something - imagination, admiration and malleability - in Will that he finds appealing. The two begin a sort of “odd couple” friendship, based on Lee’s dream of submitting a film to a national amateur video contest. He recruits Will as his stuntman and star. Through Lee, Will is exposed to the movie “Rambo,” and his vivid imagination internalizes and re-processes it as an action-adventure story of the quest for the lost father that speaks to something in both of these fatherless boys.

As they struggle to make the film, the involvement of the fascinatingly “exotic” French exchange student Didier adds a new dynamic to the movie-making process and to the budding relationship between Lee and Will. The effects of this relationship ripple outward, affecting Will’s mother and her life-choices, and Lee’s brother’s sense of family and his place in the world, as well as altering perceptions within the boys’ school and giving their fellow students an opportunity to see themselves and each other in new ways.

It’s this transformative effect of the opening-up of consciousness - an integral part of everyone’s life experience - that is the central subject of the film. It is the universality of this identification and the sincerity with which it is put across here that makes the film work in spite of its problems. The key to that is the performances of the cast, and here, as I said above, is where Jennings shines.

There’s no doubt that much of the credit must go to his young actors, who all do very good work, avoiding the pitfall of self-consciousness and coming across (with a very few exceptions) as natural and relaxed. But certainly Jennings’s ability to reassure and support his actors (necessary even with experienced adults) has to be part of evoking such strong characterizations.

Bill Milner actually carries the film. It is his awakening, his negotiation of the relationships he is forming - away from his family and as an independent actor in the world - that drives the film. Wilner inhabits his character with such reckless conviction, such fearless enthusiasm that he overcomes any reservations that might be raised by the script or plot. His Will is an engaging, earnest, good-hearted innocent - the very model of “the Fool” from myth and fairy tale. Like that character, he undergoes ordeals and trials and emerges a better person.

Likewise the skeptical, street-smart, wounded Lee is embodied by Will Poulter with an effective mix of defensive anger and vulnerability. His bravado is an obvious attraction to the timid Will, and his neediness and gradual recognition of Will’s unexpected strengths allows them to transcend the initially exploitative nature of the relationship. He serves as a portal to the outer world for Will, as Will serves as a portal to the inner one for him, in ways that change them both.

The rest of the cast - almost all under the age of 18 - also acquit themselves with aplomb. Most notable is Jules Sitruk, whose Didier is a wonderful embodiment of adolescent over-reaching, a young person trapped inside his own self-generated mythology. The magnetic effect such myth-making can have on children of this age and the tender reality that lies behind it which Didier reveals in his desire to “become a movie star,” are another sub-text which illuminates and textures the struggles of Will and Lee.

The production design is accomplished. From the impersonal meeting room where The Bretheren come together, to the shed where Will’s father’s cluttered workshop has become a sort of shrine, to the eerie formality of the superficially-luxurious elder-care facility Lee calls home, the backgrounds provide useful and meaningful information that adds depth to the story. Camerawork by Jess Hall is effective - especially the “movie-within-a-movie” scenes, that mostly look like things kids really would have produced, but still manage to carry the story efficiently and convincingly. The music is a mix of amiable pop (from the likes of The Cure, Duran Duran and Blondie) and original compositions in the same vein that provide impetus and connection for the action.

Jennings - whose only previous feature credit was the big-budget disappointment The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy - takes on a much more delicate, personal story here, and scores with his sophomore effort in a way he didn’t with his debut. His work with his young cast is admirable. He and his collaborators take a timeworn theme and manage to imbue it with specificity, imagination and vitality that largely overcome superficial weaknesses to create what emerges as a delightful and engaging film.

That's my take on it. What's yours?