Son of Rambow was touted after its early screenings at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival as last year’s answer to Little Miss Sunshine, but, when the dust clears, it’s probably going to end up down there with Happy, Texas or The Spitfire Grill in the lower circles of Sundance-buzz, overpaid-acquisition hell. Not that it’s a bad movie, exactly. It’s cute, and it’s funny, and its comic view of adolescence as a series of changed alliances and curfew violations is, for the most part, refreshingly free of sentimental cant. But Paramount Vantage reportedly paid between $8 million and $9 million for this picture based on overwhelming Sundance reaction—the highest acquisition price at the 2007 festival by an order of magnitude. A post-deal viewing indicates Paramount Vantage may not have given proper consideration to how exclusionary the tastes of Sundance audiences can be.
Set in the 1980s, Son of Rambow stars Bill Milner as Will, a British schoolboy whose membership in an Amish-like religious sect has kept him from exposure to television and movies for all of his young life. After falling in with over-the-top juvenile delinquent Lee Carter (Will Poulter), Will is accidentally exposed to a bootleg videotape of Sylvester Stallone in one of his Rambo actioners, a viewing that infects him like a parasite in the blood. This is fortunate, because Carter is attempting to make an amateur movie for a BBC contest, and, with Will as his suddenly fearless action star, Son of Rambow is soon born.
There are a lot of imaginative elements to this film, including giving Will, as the product of a warped and repressive lifestyle, an inner life worthy of Tim Burton and the pen-and-ink fantasy preoccupations of a nascent Henry Darger. The vogue for ’80s high kitsch is dutifully exploited, mostly in the character of a rat-tailed French transfer student, and there’s a tacked-on party scene that looks like it’s wholly comprised of vintage music video out-takes from Power Station and Duran Duran.
As in writer/director Garth Jennings’ hectic adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there are some pretty bald shifts of tone here, not all of them well integrated. A cheeky satire of playground politics gives way to TV group-hug syndrome in its final moments, with everyone telling just about everyone “I love you” in one way or another. (It’s a shame the music supervisors didn’t think to cue that apogee of ’80s bathos “We Are The World.”) The comedy—which is often of the broadest slapstick sort—gets shoved aside in act three for teary hospital scenes that seem forced and a betrayal of what came before. After watching Will and Lee bounce around like Tom and Jerry in an old cartoon, the magic suddenly evaporates and one of them gets injured. It’s as if the parental world whose rules they’ve so giddily suspended has suddenly reasserted its authority in the most alarming and punitive manner.
More to the commercial point, Son of Rambow is a schoolyard film full of movie-production references that are likely to go over in Boise like the proverbial lead balloon. Watching kids make a movie and say things like “Hurry up! We’re losing light!” may seem like the height of comedy to an auditorium full of agents, distributors, aspiring filmmakers and movie critics; in the real world, it’s borderline cute at best. That the kids in question speak with British accents that are so thick as to be occasionally unintelligible is just one more obstacle Little Miss Sunshine never had to overcome. Still, as a movie about using popular culture as a tool for personal liberation, Son of Rambow could find some sort of cultish American audience. It’s a message that could resonate for any teenager, past or present, who has ever used a hit record or a favorite movie to feel just a little more free.
Distributor: Paramount Vantage
Cast: Will Poulter, Bill Milner, Jules Sitruk, Charlie Thrift, Jessica Stevenson and Neil Dudgeon
Director/Screenwriter: Garth Jennings
Producers: Nick Goldsmith, Hengameh Panahi, Ben Goldhirsch and Bristol Baughan
Rating: PG-13 for some violence and reckless behavior
Running time: 95 min.
Release date: May 2