Son of Rambow

Paramount Vantage
Garth Jennings/France-United Kingdom 2008

Son of Rambow is the second film from Hammer & Tongs, AKA Garth Jennings and Nick Goldsmith, the director-producer team who made their reputations in music videos and updated The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in 2005.

While Hitchhiker was a contentiously Americanized take on a minor British classic, Son of Rambow is the opposite: a British kids film that not only references American culture but borrows some of the bombast and budget of a Hollywood production.

Will (Bill Milner) is an introspective, arty 10-year-old who recently lost his father (echoes of last year’s This is England) and feels no affinity for the Jehovah’s Witness-style sect called the Brethren that has beholden the rest of his family.

A series of events leads to Will being indebted to Lee (Will Poulter), a brash but socially inept school bully whose only focus is a burgeoning business in video piracy. Lee unwittingly allows Will to watch his copy of First Blood, unaware that due to the Brethren’s code he’s never been allowed to view a movie before. It becomes Will’s own quasi-religious awakening.

Bonded by cinematic obsession, they enter an amateur filmmaking competition for the BBC show Screen Test and decide to film an unofficial Rambo sequel so Will can cathartically rescue his screen father from the clutches of an undefined enemy.

The mishap-strewn and downright dangerous shooting sessions that follow offer the bulk of the film’s laughs and their spirit of abandon and cartoon-like rejection of the possibilities of physical injury is refreshing, especially in our current climate of child-safety evangelism. (Son of Rambow’s distributors are reportedly concerned that the BBFC may have issues over the likelihood of young viewers imitating these scenes.)

Despite displaying an anarchic streak with his stunt sequences, Jennings for the most part conforms to the comforting tropes of the kids’ film genre, such as the unlikely friendship and the reaffirmation of companionship in adversity. But there occasional touches of originality and pleasingly unexpected aspects (French student Didier Revol (Jules Sitruk) is a more intriguing character than is initially suggested).

The effect of American culture on Britain is an intrinsic theme of the film, but also overtly implicated in the film’s production.

The young protagonists are notably inspired by a popcorn action film rather than contemporary British hits like Chariots of Fire or Gandhi and presumably Jennings and Goldsmith were similarly influenced in their youths.

They both remain indebted in terms of the financial assistance offered by Paramount Vantage and because Sylvester Stallone had to personally approve the re-use of his image in the First Blood clips.

Jennings also turns to Hollywood in the way he updates the usually wry and restrained style of the British kids’ film (i.e. Kes, Millions). So there’s frequent use of digital effects and Gilliam-esque animated dream sequences that perhaps seem out of place in a small-scale film. But perhaps that’s because the idea of the unprepossessing, small-scale British film is so culturally ingrained.

The film was reportedly a smash at Sundance and received a rapturous reception in London too. I’d imagine the film should chime with British public’s ongoing love affair with 1980s nostalgia of any description. Jennings has certainly nailed the details spot-on, from the era’s sweet wrappers to the precise fashions of 1980s French exchange students.

Paramount obviously (and shamefully for an uninterested UK industry) saw potential in the film and will be hoping such success translates to America; the only obvious bar being the film’s overtly anti-religious tone. It certainly deserves a wide audience and may yet enter into a memorable multiplex battle with Stallone’s own Rambo¬Ě next year.

Incidentally, the concept of youngsters re-shooting a blockbuster is reminiscent of a real-life project that gained notoriety a few years ago; three teenagers produced their own remake called Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation over several years and it belatedly became a cult hit. Action films from the early 1980s obviously exert a powerful influence.

© 2007 James Rocarols. All rights reserved.

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