I’ve been taking some heat for castigating "Kung Fu Panda" last week (you’d think I clubbed a baby seal). Just in time, I have my counter example. "Son of Rambow" (sic) is that rara avis, a movie about kids that’s smart, original, funny, and rather true. It isn’t perfect, but compared to the rest of the landscape, what a jewel.
The film, set in an English village in the 1980s, is the story of an unlikely friendship between two young boys. Will (Bill Milner) is as scrawny as a wet Chihuahua, the son of a super-religious single mother, who hides in a private world of daydreams. We see his imaginings in animated sequences from his point of view (more of these would have been nice). One look at his Bible, as densely illustrated by him as a monk’s illuminated manuscript, and you know that this kid is going to break free some day.
While waiting to be bawled out by the school principal after a misadventure, Will meets Lee Carter (Will Pulter) in the hallway. Or more accurately, Lee Carter beans him the head with a ball. This is a die hard miscreant, a kid who takes to trouble like Rambo takes to death, a kid whom adults automatically assume is guilty, so he’s pleased to prove them right. Why do he and Will become friends? Maybe because Lee Carter, who worships his brother, needs someone to worship him for a change.
Lee Carter’s mom is jet setting in Europe, leaving him in the questionable care of his narcissistic loser of an older brother. The brother has him sneaking into the local movie theater, videotaping the movies, and making pirated dubs on the VCRs downstairs. Will, stuck in the basement one afternoon, watches, enraptured, as "First Blood" is being dubbed. It’s like crack.
Will is inspired: Lee Carter (Will always calls him by both names, which, in his excited, sweet little voice, never gets old) will use the video camera to re-make "Rambo" in their image. "I’ll save you, Rambow!" Will shouts, grabbing his drooling, withered grandfather in a black fright wig, the only adult he could muster.
The director of "Son of Rambow" is Garth Jennings ("The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy") who gets excited by the possibilities of computer graphics to pull off impossible sight gags. Will’s death-tempting stunts include a William Tell routine with a real crossbow bolt practically parting his hair, and using a plank of wood like a see-saw, catapulting himself twenty feet in the air.
We laugh because we know that this is a kind film, and nothing can happen to Will, can it? But considering that we are lulled into a reverie, an accident, occurring late in the film, is a bit of a betrayal of trust. A child is trapped under some falling debris, and nearly suffocates in a pit of black oil. It’s a brief scene, but it’s frightening enough to break the spell, and very young or sensitive kids might be troubled.
Actually, this indicates the movie’s only flaw. "Son of Rambow" is content to be amiable throughout, and it’s likeable indeed. But we miss the sense that something much is really at stake, other than Will and Lee Carter’s blood brother-ship. There’s an intriguing subplot involving Will’s mom (economically made three dimensional by Jessica Hynes), and the smarmy fundamentalist pastor who’s putting the moves on her; and a compelling scene in which she tries to bring Will back to God instead of Lee Carter. Those family and religious dynamics aren’t explored nearly enough; they should sting.
While an overall sense of urgency might have nudged the film into greatness, "Son of Rambow" is still that one-in-a-hundred film that speaks to kids and adults without insulting the intelligence of either. In other words, it’s smarter than your (thoroughly) average bear.