‘Son of Rambow’

Nostalgia lies somewhere under the Rambow


“Son of Rambow” is one of those very British comedies, in the tradition of “The Full Monty” or “Calendar Girls,” in which the not-so-promising group of amateurs rally and put on the big show. In this case, it’s a pair of 10-year-old boys in rural Hertfordshire circa 1982 — misfit Will Proudfoot and brat Lee Carter — making a home-video homage to “Rambo: First Blood” with their classmates that takes on rather epic proportions, full of dangerously improvised stunts, evil scarecrows and flying dogs.

Yet it’s also a loving tribute to the kind of spontaneous childhood play that later flowers into adult obsession. Kids who start off making naff home-brew Stallone vids may someday grow up to be, well, Garth Jennings, the director of this film (and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”), who admits to the personal nature of this project.

Jennings is part of the production team Hammer & Tongs, along with producer Nick Goldsmith, who made a name for themselves with a number of quirkily memorable music videos, including Fatboy Slim’s “Right Here, Right Now,” Blur’s “Coffee & TV,” and Supergrass’ “Pumping on Your Stereo,” where the band were shown as spidery, elongated puppets.

Son of Rambow
Director Garth Jennings
Run Time 94 minutes
Language English

Hammer & Tongs have been known for a certain childish naivete in their use of animation and hand-constructed bric-a-brac, so it’s no surprise to learn that “Son of Rambow” was intended to be their first film, until the bigger-budgeted “Hitchhiker’s Guide” came along and sidetracked them. “Rambow” looks and feels much more like a labor of love, and its blend of childhood mischief, best-friends-forever sentimentality and 80s nostalgia is hard to beat.

Will (Bill Milner) is introverted and shy, the product of a strict religious upbringing in which he’s forbidden to watch TV or, especially, sinfully violent movies such as “Rambo.” He channels his creativity into extensive and fanciful notebook doodling until he meets bully and aspiring filmmaker Lee (Will Poulter), who decides he’s found the perfect sap to perform all the film’s dangerous bits, like jumping out of a tree with an umbrella as parachute.

Lee is a latch-key kid whose parents are abroad somewhere, with just a surly older brother at home who barely looks after him, and it’s no surprise that he’s a terror at school, spending more time in the headmaster’s office than in class. His bullying disdain for Will somehow changes to friendship when he senses Will’s loyalty and genuine interest in the film project.

Milner and Poulter are both first-time actors, and Jennings seems to have found boys who pretty much fit his roles with little performance needed. They bring a real sense of camaraderie to their parts, which has raised a lot of comparisons with that classic childhood buddy pic, “Stand By Me”; there’s a bit of that film’s nostalgia for the purity of youth, but “Son of Rambow” is also a lot funnier.

Much of that humor comes from French exchange student Didier (Jules Sitruk), a vain, eyeliner-wearing New Romantic fashion-plate who sees himself as a tween Marc Almond. Didier inserts himself as the film’s new star, and brings along a horde of classmates — the unpopular Lee soon finds himself fired from his own film. (A very early lesson for any aspiring director to learn: Get it in writing!) Will is forced to choose between the film and his friend, and learns a few lessons the hard way; the film gets a bit maudlin and predictable at this point, but it’s still a case of job well done.

As Lou Reed once said, I don’t like nostalgia unless it’s mine, and “Son of Rambow” ‘s warm and fuzzy feelings for both the ‘roid-rage “Rambo” films and MTV’s endless parade of androgynous haircut bands (think Duran Duran) were far from my own. These were things I loathed at the time, one representing a cultural retreat from the challenges presented by punk and postpunk, the other an embodiment of Reaganite militarism that sought to erase the memories of the failed military adventure in Vietnam. Of course, I was old enough to view the pop culture with teen cynicism, not the innocence of youth. It’s a credit to Jennings’ storytelling skills that one can enjoy his nostalgia without necessarily having to share it.