Son of Rambow
Dir. Garth Jennings
Premiered at Sundance January 22, 2007
Anyone who wants to prove the existence of Carl Jung’s fabled collective unconscious has no further to look than cinema’s tendency toward micro-genres. Every once in a while, a series of films come out with very similar premises. These particular instances are never the type big, successful blockbusters that inspire imitators, and they’re made too close together to be following each other’s lead, yet there they are. People just come up with the same ideas at the same time.
The 2000s gave us a couple of these. Toward the beginning of the decade were Admissions Comedies; movies about young people attempting to get into a university or pay their tuition through some sort of misdeed (Orange County, Stealing Harvard, The Perfect Score, Accepted). Then there was the truly bizarre trend of ugly, borderline-unwatchable action movies that were also nonsenical, pretentious political manifestos, all of which flopped (Southland Tales, Smokin’ Aces, War, Inc.).
Son of Rambow, as far as I can tell, was the first of another notable micro-trend the amateur-filmmaking genre. While there’s never a shortage of new movies about making movies, a small selection of movies in the late 2000s (Son of Rambow, Be Kind Rewind, Super 8) decided instead to focus on the relationship between movies and ambitious outsiders who love them– which at least runs less of a risk of alienating audiences with Hollywood insider talk. And while it was a bit weird to get these all at once, it worked out a hell of a lot better than the political action movies did.
The film begins with Will (Bill Milner), a child being raised by a single mother (Jessica Stevenson) in some sort of hardline religious movement in the early 1980s. At school, he gets in a fight with incorrigible bad boy Lee Carter (Will Poulter). The child of absentee parents living in an old folks’ home with his bullying brother (Ed Westwick), Carter quickly cons Will into giving up his late father’s wristwatch, and then into helping make a movie to win a national youth filmmaking contest. Because of his religious upbringing, Will has never watched a movie before, but once exposed to Carter’s pirated copy of First Blood, a childhood’s worth of pent-up creative yearning bursts forth, and the two become genuine friends.
After a long period of shooting, Will and Carter’s efforts attract the attention of their classmates, as well as the Prince-styled French exchange student with whom the entire student body is obsessed. But the rapidly expanding scope of their production drives a wedge between Will and Carter and threatens both of their home lives.
If you have ever wondered what it would be like if Jean-Pierre Jeunet adapted Stand By Me, this’ll give you a pretty good idea. That’s not always an asset. One of the pleasures of movies about filmmaking is that it enables the viewer to directly look into the artist’s imagination, which Son of Rambow does to the fullest. However, there’s not enough of a visual distinction between Will’s artistic visions and his everyday life, especially early on with questionably fake-looking stunts and effects and The Gods Must Be Crazy-type fast-motion.
I also wish the religion thing had been explained better. While the Brotherhood’s cultish disdain for media and distinctly Soviet style of dress is somewhat exoticized, the lack of explanation for who they are suggests that the viewer is supposed to just know. (They’re Plymouth Brethren, which I had to look up and had never heard of before).
But these are minor issues; the unflinchingly chaotic friendship between Will and Carter anchors the film wonderfully. Finally, Sundance 2007 has provided a movie for me to truly like. However, the best is yet to come.
It’s a very minor thing, but the kids actually appear to be middle school-aged, by which I mean the girls are way taller than the boys. You never see that in live-action film, and you can’t help but appreciate the commitment to authenticity.
How Did It Do?
Son of Rambow spent over a year in the festival circuit before finally being released in May 2008, shortly after an ill-fated attempt to revive the Rambo franchise itself. Grossing $10.9 million against a $6.5 million budget, Son did virtually no business except in its native UK, where it was a relative hit, spending two weeks at #2 in the box office. While it didn’t make it’s money back, it gave a boost in prestige to director Garth Jennings, who had come and gone from Hollywood after his adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy bombed, eventually returning for Illumination’s 2016 film Sing.
Next Time: King of California