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Son of Rambow

An Exceptional Coming-of-Age Tale

Written and directed by Garth Jennings (one-half of Hammer & Tongs, a music video and commercials directing/producing duo), Son of Rambow is an imaginative, occasionally daft, ultimately engrossing coming-of-age tale set in England during the 80s. With Gondry-inspired visuals, the best synth-pop tracks of the decade, note-perfect turns by its young cast, and an unfailingly honest, sometimes raw, depiction of teenagers and social cliques, Son of Rambow is easily one of most refreshingly original films to come along this year (or any year for that matter).

Set in unnamed rural community outside London (actually Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire), Son of Rambow centers on Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner), whose family belongs to the Brethren, a strict, fundamentalist Christian sect that forbids non-religious entertainment (e.g., radios, television, movie theaters), and Lee Carter (Will Poulter), the school bully and all-around prankster. Will, exiled to the hallway while his classmates watch a nature documentary, meets Lee, exiled to the hallway for talking back to his instructor.

After Lee takes responsibility for a prank that implicates Will, he convinces Will to work off his “debt” by agreeing to appear in Lee’s film project, a sequel on Sylvester Stallone’s First Blood, Will’s first film seen via crude videotape bootleg. Lee makes the fearless Will his stuntman, but it’s Will, his eyes opened to the world of film and its myriad possibilities, that comes up with a story for Lee’s film project: a prequel, with Will as Rambo’s long-lost, never-before-seen-or-mentioned son and a plot structured around Will's unnamed character saving his father from all sorts of random evil.

Didier (Jules Sitruk), a French transfer student considered the coolest kid in school, decides he wants in on the film project too. Will has to choose between his newfound love of filmmaking, maintaining his friendship with Lee, and keeping his mother, Mary (Jessica Stevenson), and Joshua (Neil Dudgeon), a religious elder eager to marry the widowed Mary, ignorant of his after-school activities.

Son of Rambow is an ode to DIY filmmaking at the dawn of the camcorder age, an ode to the sheer inventiveness and sometimes foolhardy bravery that seemingly affects boys (and some girls) right before and during high school and, ultimately, an ode to the unlikely friendships constructed around mutual need and/or the passion for a popular art form like music or film (and, more recently, gaming). More than that, Jennings has created two fascinatingly flawed, and therefore, human characters in Lee and Will. Not surprisingly, Jennings leaned heavily on his own childhood obsessions and experiences in creating Lee, Will, and the recognizable world they live in.

None of that would have mattered, though, if Jennings and Nick Goldsmith flubbed the single most important element in any coming-of-age tale: their lead actors. Both Bill Milner (as Will) and Will Poulter (as Lee) are perfectly cast. Milner has an awkward manner and an intense curiosity that serves him and Son of Rambow extremely well. Poulter could have easily overplayed Lee as an unsympathetic bully, but to his and Jennings’ credit, he never does, making even his worst pranks seem the response of a lonely, troubled boy, not an inherently bad one. A strong, supporting cast, including veteran actress Jessica Stevenson (as Will’s conflicted mother), helps out Milner and Poulter, but ultimately it’s Milner and Poulter’s world. We’re just lucky Jennings and Goldsmith gave us a chance to visit.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars