'Son of Rambow': Powerful Make-Believe

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 9, 2008

Think of John Rambo not as that kitschy Cold War warrior of the 1980s, but as a ripped personal savior.

Of course that's a stretch, but it's the delightful premise of "Son of Rambow," a tenderly comic British film that chronicles one lad's emotional journey from religiously sheltered whelp to macho screen hero -- at least in his preteen imagination.

That singular evolution comes courtesy of Sylvester Stallone's 1982 "First Blood," which is young Will's first movie experience. From a family and religious group (known as the Brethren) that forbid him to watch television or films, Will (Bill Milner) has lived perpetually off-grid. But after he lays eyes on Stallone's crossbow and can-do independence, he fashions a headband from a school tie and never looks back.

Set during the early 1980s, when VHS camcorders and videotape machines were the entertainment staples of the zeitgeist, "Son of Rambow" follows the growing friendship between Will and Lee (Will Poulter), a fellow student and class clown whose parents have left him to fend for himself under a dour older brother.

Thrown together by circumstance -- they're banished to the same hallway one day -- Will and Lee come to realize that making a home movie inspired by "First Blood" is more than just a chance to win an amateur filmmaking contest. It's an opportunity to fill the emotional voids in both their lives. Will learns that the media-saturated world out there is more fun than evil. And his obsession with All Things Rambo thereafter becomes a sort of personal liberation. As for Lee -- whose bravado hides a desperate loneliness -- he gets a much-needed friend.

Director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith (whose creative team, Hammer & Tongs, made 2005's whimsical "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy") lead us through the boys' personal world with an engaging playfulness. Animation -- deliberately low-tech to suggest a childlike, hand-drawn quality -- occasionally appears to illustrate the imaginings of Will as he plays in character as Son of Rambow (his spelling). And the movie is rarely far from a hilarious sight gag or comical situation, whether it's the Road Runner-style stunts Will undertakes (projected into the air by seesaw!) or the participation of Didier (Jules Sitruk), a self-impressed French exchange student who insinuates himself into Will and Lee's movie.

The fun surface of the movie belies a deeper dimension. At first, the boys' high-mindedness is funny as they revisit Stallone's one-dimensional machismo territory with the goofy earnestness of youth. (The spectacle of a scrawny Will in war paint and a macho tank top is an ever-renewable giggle.) But their seriousness of purpose becomes more affecting when we see how this faux epic offers them relief from a humorless, authoritarian world.

Actors Milner and Poulter work together so sweetly and believably that they bring to mind the screen partnership between Alexander Etel and Lewis McGibbon, the cute Mancunian tykes in Danny Boyle's 2004 "Millions." In both films, we become so involved in their triumphs and heartbreaks, we completely forget we've bought into the lives of minors. That superficial apartheid between adult and children's movies is -- at least temporarily -- destroyed. And we find ourselves charmed by the "Rambo" franchise in ways we never could have anticipated.

Son of Rambow (96 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema and Landmark's Bethesda Row) is rated PG-13 for some violence and reckless behavior.

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