You know you’re getting old when childhood memories start yellowing around the edges like old photographs, when they begin to resemble fantastic nostalgia more than reality, and the colors fade like you’re watching an old home movie. Soon you’ll insist that things were much better back then, before we had vaccines for chicken pox, when the best game in town was Pong, seat belts were optional and tighty whities were the only option available. You’ll forget that good music was just as rare on the radio- ever hear Whitney Houston at an ’80s party? Well, let me tell you in the mid-80s, escaping her ear-shattering wails was as hard as Chinese algebra. The rear view mirror should come with its own warning- objects may not be as rosy as they appear.
Son of Rambow is a movie by Garth Jennings, whose other major feature was the underappreciated The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy adaptation, which took an impossible book and made a pretty entertaining movie out of it. But defending that movie is for another time. In his latest, he kicks Tim Burton’s mopey goth-boy butt off the parapets and takes his crown, by making one of the best childhood fantasies of recent vintage, about two schoolmates and who become unlikely friends while making their own Rambo movie. He even manages to touch on the prickly subjects of bullies, religion, and authority without stooping to the booger-flinging childish attitudes so prevalent in Burton’s movies. It’s a little subtle and quirky, but I found it truly delightful.
Will Proudfoot is a quiet, imaginative boy whose family belongs to a religious sect which forbids such modern distractions as television, music and the movies. We meet him when he sits outside the classroom to avoid a filmstrip being shown. Wild boy Lee Carter is also in the hallway skipping class, and they don’t so much meet as collide; the strictly raised boy, and the boy who’s raising himself. Lee’s older brother minds him by using him as a house servant for himself and his preppy hooligan pals, leaving him to his own devices as long as he goes to school. He’s got a storeroom full of goodies to play with, and Lee has been sneakily borrowing his ’80s-era video camera- 50 pounds of shoulder-mounted camera and hip-mounted tape and battery pack, just like I remember them.
The only movie showing in town is First Blood, and when Will’s repressed imagination- thus far limited to picture stories illustrated on notepads and throughout his Bible- meets Lee’s Huckleberry Finn-like freedom and utter lack of regard for the law, they collaborate on their own sequel to the Sylvester Stallone blockbuster called Son of Rambo. The movie deftly weaves several plots involving school and home life; the boys prank their schoolmasters, and deal with French exchange students, including a young punk named Didier who introduces the sheltered kids to a walking, talking rockstar who looks like he walked off their Bau-Haus album covers. Will’s mother is a widow, and having trouble with the Brethren; one wants to become part of the household, and thinks Will needs even stricter parenting. It’s to Jennings’ credit that the religious family is not used for mockery, or turned into stereotypes; Will’s mother is devout and does want him to be, but she is never shown as domineering or cruel, and neither is the church.
The movie does have a subtle, fantastic aura, where the early ’80s are a magical, innocent place; little touches, like the shed they hang out in being off-kilter, almost like Dr. Seuss designed it. The music and the look is spot on, with Lee’s self-absorbed jerky older brother driving around in a Triumph TR7 and looking like he walked out of a Polo catalogue. How children were allowed to roam in nearby forests and abandoned factories because we didn’t assumed an adbuctor was hiding behind every bustling hedgerow. The two relatively new child actors are magnificent discoveries and never seem like they are acting; Lee is given to some near-breaks of the fourth wall, as he likes self-narrating, but he rides that razor’s edge perfectly.
The story does follow that “unlikely friends” formula, but their friendship seems founded on abuse- since Lee really doesn’t know how to treat friends, since he has none, and only his brother as a role model- so when they realize what good friends they actually are, it surprises us as well as them. The ending is a bit bittersweet and unlikely, reminiscent of Be Kind Rewind not only in how it centers on a low-budget, folksy recreation, but in the sentimental, caring neighborhood it creates (and longs for). While there’s a touch of Michel Gondry in its whimsy, it also reminded me of Tim Burton’s early (and best) work, like Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, when he was less likely to insert dark little asides to avenge a childhood full of jock bullying. (Even in Big Fish, one of Burton’s best recent films, he had to stick a scene of a jock dying on the crapper which was completely unnecessary).
While set in the ’80s, and involving stunts no 9 year old should contemplate, I think it would be a great kid movie. It reminded me of my childhood. We make stupidly dangerous bike ramps for our Huffy Bandits and Mongooses; if we only had a videocamera! It’s inspirational to the imagination, and there are consequences to their reckless behavior, so it’s not like it espouses jumping off buildings (I did that too, and have a lifelong injury to remind me not to do it again). It’s good fun for adults too, especially for those of us who grew up in the time period- it doesn’t dwell on nostalgia, but captures the era so well that even though it’s set in Britain, I had to grin a lot in remembrance. It even uses some of the best clips from First Blood, like this one again:
And yes, they had to add the “w” for legal reasons, obviously. Just in case Sly gets too old to make Rambo 8, and needs to get rescued by his son.