Will Proudfoot and Lee Carter first meet in the school corridor one day when neither is in class. Lee is there because he’s a young hooligan who’s been thrown out of the classroom. Will is there because his science class is watching a documentary videotape, and his ultra-conservative religious persuasion — Plymouth Brethren — doesn’t permit him to watch movies or television. The next day they’re both out in the same corridor again, for the same reasons.
There’s a Darwinian ruthlessness in the events that follow as Lee remorselessly bullies, cons and domineers Will, who’s so sheltered and isolated (turns out fish in a barrel are easier to shoot) that he doesn’t even understand that he’s being abused, and before long comes to regard Will as a friend. Yet the two boys have more in common than first appears, and zero-sum attrition is ultimately not the final word on their relationship.
After making his feature debut with the rather inspiration-challenged big-screen Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, director Garth Jennings wisely shifts to a more intimate and personal canvas with Son of Rambow, a quirky British indie, set in the early 1980s, that made a splash at Sundance. Although somewhat scattered and uneven, Rambow has enough heart and wit to sustain its 96-minute running time.
Both Will and Lee live inside their heads, and seek creative outlet in image-making. Lee’s inner world is populated by mainstream culture images and icons, such as Sly Stallone’s hero John Rambo in First Blood, which Lee pirates with a clunky camcorder at a theater screening. Will, of course, has never experienced anything like that, but at Lee’s house he has an electrifying encounter with those contraband images of Stallone battling law-enforcement officials in the mountain wilderness of Washington State.
Will’s worried mother (Jessica Stevenson) — and the members of their strict Brethren community, like faux-concerned Brother Joshua (Neil Dudgeon) — would doubtless say that Lee has “corrupted” Will by exposing him to First Blood. The reality, though, may be a little more complicated, as suggested by the awed eagerness with which Will embraces this Hollywood pop mythology… and the darker themes running through Will’s imagination even before he met Lee.
Will’s literal and figurative Bible is a dogeared, heavily decorated volume crammed and overwritten (presumably for lack of other writing material) with doodles, flip-book animations and other graffiti. The whimsy of Will’s imagination doesn’t obscure a running theme of darkness: one of Will’s hand-animated scenarios involves an airplane that grows legs and feet as it comes in for a landing — yet once safely on the ground it unexpectedly explodes and bursts into flames.
If Lee can’t bear all the blame for “corrupting” Will, perhaps “corrupting” isn’t entirely the right word in the first place. For generations well-intentioned parents, teachers and guardians have sought to remove toy weapons and violent play from the nursery, backyard and playground. Many children have grown up sheltered from stories about scary monsters, witches and giants — anything that could induce nightmares. Yet nightmares come anyway, and, deprived of external inspiration, children willy-nilly invent monsters, weapons and hair-raising scenarios of their own devising. Perhaps there is something about how children develop that is served by such play and such stories (not that I’m advocating First Blood for ten-year-olds).
While Will creates his flip-book animations, Lee’s idea is to make a movie and submit it to a young filmmakers contest run by the BBC children’s game show “Screen Test.” Specifically, he wants to remake First Blood, and coerces Will into participating. Yet in Will it turns out that Lee he has an eager partner with ideas of his own: Will wants to be Son of Rambow (so Will spells the name in his new Stallone-influenced Bible doodles), on a mission to rescue his father. He also has fanciful story ideas, drawn from his own imaginative repertoire, from menacing scarecrows to flying dogs.
Significantly, both Will and Lee are growing up fatherless: one orphaned, the other abandoned. Lee’s family situation is additionally complicated by his mother’s relationship with a man who runs a UK-based elder care facility largely from the Continent, which means a very odd living arrangement for Lee and little parental contact. Of course, Will’s situation is additionally complicated by his Plymouth Brethren milieu.
One of the first things Lee does after meeting Will is to con him out of the watch he’s wearing — which just happens to have belonged to Will’s father. So far, so-so… but then the other shoe drops when we meet Lee’s older brother Lawrence (Ed Westwick). The theme of the bully who is himself bullied at home may be a familiar one, but Rambow wrings extra pathos from Lee’s genuine devotion to his big brother.
At some point during filming, Lee and Will’s project comes to the attention of their fellow students, particularly flamboyant, androgynous Didier (Jules Sitruk), a French exchange student whose MTV couture and studied ennui make him a superstar to the boys’ awed classmates. What happens next only partly echoes French director Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind, another recent nostalgic and silly fable about DIY filmmakers inspired by Hollywood films. In Gondry’s tale, filmmaking ultimately brings the community together; Rambow suggests that not all visions can be shared, at least not without becoming a different sort of vision, losing something in the process.
Alas, in a film that offers understanding to everyone from schoolyard bullies to abusive older brothers, from droning sixth-form science teachers to pretentious French pretty boys, Rambow’s unsympathetic, even vindictive portrayal of the Proudfoots’ Plymouth Brethren religious milieu is all the more disappointing.
Will’s isolation and awkwardness might dimly echo the maladjusted protagonist of the quirky American indie comedy Lars and the Real Girl, but Son of Rambow has none of that film’s respectful attitude toward believers. And unlike Millions, another fanciful British comedy about a boy with religious issues, Rambow isn’t interested in moral conflict or ambiguity. Pressured by his mother to mend his ways, Will solemnly promises not to “betray the Brethren again,” but has no intention of keeping that promise and no second thoughts either about that or lying to his mother.
Rigid, domineering Brother Joshua is a dissonantly unpleasant presence, and Will’s mother’s childhood story about buying a record player for a song she heard outside a shop will rightly strike viewers as a tragic anecdote of faith gone wrong. Rambow offers glimpses of innocence in Will’s spirituality, from spontaneous and set prayers to the juxtaposition of religion and imagination represented by his Bible, but the loss-of-religion vibe is the dominant spiritual note.
Still, despite its flaws, Son of Rambow works more often than it doesn’t, and its celebration of imagination and the ties that bind even in highly dysfunctional situations makes up for most of its faults. It’s one of those pretty good films that’s good enough to make you wish it were even better.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.