Son of Rambow is essentially a classic feel-good movie dressed up with the seemingly irreverent sense of humor and childlike DIY aesthetic of the likes of Michel Gondry and Wes Anderson. The concept of an unlikely friendship between two young misfits gets dusted off and informed by a twee creative sensibility that the indie fan base—or at least the suits giving the green-light for all these movies—can't seem to get enough of.
In Rambow, Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) is a sheltered boy in the British sticks in the mid-1980s. His fatherless family is associated with the Brethren, a strict Protestant denomination. Living mostly in his head, Will fills his textbooks and the bathroom stalls at school with minute, intricate illustrations of inconsequential fancy. Since he's not allowed to watch televised documentaries in class, due to Brethren dictates, Will is brought into association with Lee Carter (Will Poulter), a bully, petty criminal, and general good-for-nothing who perpetually serves time in detention. At Carter's latchkey home, Will catches a bootleg recording of First Blood. The seductive forbidden fruit of Sly Stallone's alpha-male lone warrior influences the mousy youth so greatly that his already hyper-kinetic inner life takes on a completely new scope.
With Carter's VHS camcorder, the two boys begin to shoot their own Rambo film, with Will playing the title character. The questionable nature of both boys' families complicates the budding friendship: the dictates of the austere Brethren religion don't allow meaningful relationships with anyone outside the fold, while Carter's poor upbringing has left him emotionally stunted and prone to anti-social outbursts. Thrown in for color is a group of French exchange students led by the arbiter of cool, Didier, whose outlandish get-up and haughty detachment suggest an Italian fashion designer's confused take on punk rock as slapped on Prince.
The inventive and outlandish video the boys work to create is definitely appealing, but the depiction of children in this film feels more like an adult's posthumous fantasy of childhood than an honest look at youthful creativity and psychology. In Anderson's Rushmore, Max Fischer was also a stylized square-peg, but Jason Schwartzman portrayed him with an emotional verity that the boys in Son of Rambow lack. Rambow also gives the viewer a sense that one-time music video director Garth Jennings had to find his film by shooting in sequence. Early on, the tone is clumsy and the performances, particularly Poulter's, are woefully one-dimensional and hammy. This stiffness evaporates, and Jennings does a good job in implementing some complexity and surprises in what would otherwise be a profoundly fashionable and shallow picture.
Will's strict mother and Carter's priggish brother eventually prove to be something more than the stone-hearted villains they appear to be, and the seemingly impregnable Didier is shown to be fallible and human. Our heroes Will and Carter prove to be three-dimensional themselves as Will bucks the Brethren line through manipulative lying, and tough-guy Carter sheds tears while voicing an extremely mature assessment of his personal situation.
What would normally be a pretty straightforward-looking film is given the royal stylistic treatment by the gorgeous cinematography of Jess Hall. Hall, who also shot 2007's brilliant Hot Fuzz, uses a gorgeous palette of warm colors, predominantly gold, and generous natural light and shadow to polish a film that could easily have had a neutral and unobtrusive look. There are also a few animated scenes intended to illustrate Will's active imagination. While these flights of fancy are pleasant, they're also superfluous and add little to the picture.
Son of Rambow may ultimately be a fairly forgettable movie experience, but it is also undeniably watchable. It's a film with more depth than expected, but its foundation is flimsy enough that its charms aren't quite enough to rescue it.