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Son Of Rambow
cast: Neil Dudgeon, Bill Milner, Will Poulter, Jules Sitruk, and Jessica Stevenson

writer and director: Garth Jennings

91 minutes (12) 2008
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Optimum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Formerly half of the music video-producing double act 'Hammer and Tongs', Garth Jennings is best known for his disappointing and over-hyped big screen adaptation of Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. Son Of Rambow, a film he wrote as well as directed, is a less ambitious affair that appeals to the heartstrings but struggles to engage the brain.

Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) is one of the Plymouth brethren. Widowed at a young age, his mother has withdrawn into her religion, clutching her children tightly to her as she goes. As a result, poor Will is refused access to television and much of the world outside of his bizarre little cult. However, lacking external stimulation, Will has acquired a vivid imagination. This imagination proves to be a great social tool for Will as he falls in with Lee Carter (Will Poulter), the unloved and unsupervised child of utterly uninterested parents who leave him in the care of his equally uninterested elder brother. Both lacking fathers, the boys also share the status of social outcasts, Proudfoot because of his religion and Carter because his parents are scabs (the film is set in the early 1980s after all).

Sharing a sense of abandonment and isolation, the boys bond over Carter's attempt to make a short film when Proudfoot's experience of the Rambo movie First Blood inspires him to come up with the basis for a proper film. Soon the boys are attempting risky stunts, attracting the attention of the insanely popular fashion victim and French exchange student Didier (Jules Sitruk) whose army of sycophants rapidly take over the project and freeze out the un-cool Carter. However, things come to a head when Didier crashes a car and traps Carter in some industrial waste, Proudfoot wades in to save him and the two realise that they need each other as friends.

Son Of Rambow is a film that has a lot going for it, particularly nostalgia. Where Shane Meadows' This Is England (2006) depicted a 1980s that was a place of social unrest, poverty, decay and misery. By contrast, Son Of Rambow's 1980s is one of Depeche Mode, silly outfits and middle-class suburbia. Indeed, the boys' school is clearly supposed to be a local comprehensive but from the architecture, the way the teachers behave and the polite, well-behaved children it is much closer to a private day school. In other words, this is a film that sets out to aggressively tap into a sense of nostalgia for a warm and blissful childhood that, for most people, simply did not exist. The film's tone and subject matter is also quite reminiscent of the output of the feted Children's Film Foundation and its successor the Children's Film and Television Foundation, who put out low-budget films aimed at children throughout the 1960s and 1970s. This is also quite a nostalgic move as these films were shown on TV up until the 1980s and would most likely be remembered by the type of people who look back fondly on the 1980s as halcyon days of youth.

Cynicism aside, the film is at its best when it just allows the characters to bounce off of each other. The central relationship dynamic between Will Proudfoot and Lee Carter draws impressively upon the fact that both characters are remarkably well drawn. Proudfoot's wide-eyed innocence and enthusiasm plays beautifully against Carter's worldly cynicism and it seems utterly believable that the two boys should grow closer and closer together despite Lee pretending that he's keeping his friend there by force. Similarly fun are the early scenes with French exchange student Didier who has the entire school at his feet thanks to his sense of dress and his romantic ennui. The lengths to which the schoolchildren go to keep Didier amused are genuinely funny, including a party in the sixth form common room that sees 'new romantic' teenagers trying to look cool whilst 'doing' cans of coke and moon rock popping candy.

Unfortunately, the wheels start coming off the truck when the plot becomes more demanding. Jennings fails to pull together a convincing scenario through which Carter might be pushed out of his own film by Proudfoot's sudden mass popularity so the two boys continue to make the film but are a bit grumpy with each other. The problem with Son Of Rambow's third act is that it tries to accomplish too much. Having been quite low-key with its exploration of Carter's abandonment and Proudfoot's suffocation, the film tries to turn both of these themes into big emotional grand finales as the boys weep and howl and scream that - a) they love their brother - even if he is a prick - because he's all they have, and - b) they love their mother but the demands placed upon them by their mother's religion are stifling them and making them unhappy.

Jennings also tries to tie all of this into the fact that Didier drives a wedge between the two boys and the result is an ending that exudes far more melodramatic light than it does heat. The film would undeniably have benefited from Jennings downplaying the boys' individual arcs in favour of better supporting the situation with Didier and their mutual need for a best friend and sense of anger at the betrayal and hostility coming from the other.

That being said, up until the director decides to over-egg the pudding, Son Of Rambow is not only an enjoyable film, it is also a proper kid's film in the grand tradition of the Children's Film Foundation, and without any merchandising or media tie-ins in sight.

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