Watching Michel Gondry’s lackluster Be Kind Rewind earlier this year, it was hard not to wonder how much better his inspired premise might have played sans all the whimsical baggage he chose to lug along. Instead of grown men who inexplicably behave like small children, why not use actual kids? Rather than posit a hypothetical Brooklyn neighborhood that has yet to discover DVDs, why not simply set the film during the VHS era? Son of Rambow, another movie about the quixotic attempt to remake a celluloid dream in one’s own image, premiered a full year before Gondry’s film, but now, arriving in U.S. theaters months later, it seems like the ideal riposte. Imagine the wide-eyed little boy from Witness abruptly transformed into Rushmore’s precocious Max Fischer, and then further imagine that oddball juxtaposition as rendered with a distinctly British sensibility, and then add a dollop of affectionate ’80s nostalgia, and you’ll have a pretty good sense of the goofy fun to be had.
Written and directed by Garth Jennings (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), Rambow, apparently set sometime in late 1982 or early 1983, pivots upon the unlikely friendship that develops between two 11-year-old boys—one of them (Will Poulter) an incorrigible ruffian, the other (Bill Milner) a member of the Plymouth Brethren, which seems to be a rough U.K. equivalent of the Amish. Since the Brethren frown upon any exposure to pop culture, young Will can’t believe his eyes when his new buddy Lee shows him a bootleg VHS copy of First Blood—the first movie he’s ever seen in his life. Before long, spurred by a television contest for young filmmakers, Will and Lee have begun creating their own remake of/homage to Stallone’s one-man forest assault, wielding a massive ’80s-era video camera with all the naive confidence and ludicrous ambition of the Max Fischer Players. Needless to say, creative difficulties ensue, especially once pretty much the entire student body joins the project.
Son of Rambow lacks the melancholy undercurrent that made Wes Anderson’s film something truly special, but it definitely brings the funny. Not only is the premise itself pure gold, but Jennings, who couldn’t quite find the right tone for Douglas Adams, here also demonstrates exquisite comic timing in one absurd vignette after another. Many of the best bits derive from a tangential subplot involving a French foreign-exchange student (Jules Sitruk) whose streaked hair and leather pants leave the Brits awestruck. (“Bonjour ... L’Angleterre!” he solemnly intones into a microphone upon arrival, as if he’d just kicked off the first leg of his world tour.) But it’s the kids’ sheer joy in play and mimicry—their fundamentally naive attempt to emulate the adult world, or at least a gory Hollywood simulacrum of the adult world—that keeps you grinning. Maybe I’m a sucker for this stuff because I still remember spending an entire afternoon creating Captain America’s shield out of a trash-can lid, but I can’t imagine I’m alone in such memories.
Like too many contemporary comedies, Rambow does get bogged down a bit with unnecessary sentiment in its third act, as Jennings, who also wrote the screenplay, provides us with a helpful lesson concerning the True Meaning of Friendship. (Even Rushmore, for all its sophistication, featured a manufactured rift between Max Fischer and his pint-sized cohort, Dirk.) But it helps when the gooey homilies are addressed to a little kid who’s both dressed up and addressed as Colonel Trautman. That Jennings uses First Blood as his touchstone, rather than its far more popular sequel, Rambo, only strengthens our identification with its starry-eyed protagonists—there’s no sense that we’re seeing something that’s been carefully fine-tuned to appeal to the collective fantasy life of a worldwide audience. In its slight, amiable way, Son of Rambow captures our tendency to latch onto random bits of cultural flotsam and jetsam and appropriate them for our own purposes. If it’s not the sincerest form of flattery, surely it’s the most endearing.