In those moments when we forget what it was actually like, we insult our childhoods by thinking of them as a simple time. Sure, there were no mortgages, car payments, or retirement worries, but these were also the years when we — through trial and error — tried to figure out who we were, and got hard lessons in the ways that society tends to treat its misfits.
Despite being set in the early ’80s, Son of Rambow doesn’t suffer from that amnesia, placing its story of an unlikely friendship within one of society’s eternal eye-openers: school. In the film, Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) is a sensitive, artistic soul growing up in a strict religious family and doing a poor job of fitting in at his English school. By chance, he falls in with Lee Carter (Will Poulter), a lying, thieving school bully who initially manipulates Will at every turn.
Before long, the two begin making their own film, courtesy of the camera Lee uses to bootleg movies at the local theatre — and slowly become friends. Complications arise on both sides, however, in the form of Will’s increasing independence in the face of his Plymouth Brethren upbringing, and in the arrival of Didier Revol (Jules Sitruk), a dripping-with-cool French foreign exchange student who takes over both the school and the film.
The film sets up its tensions and contrasts in smart ways, adding surprising depth to what seem like straightforward scenarios. As we find out more about the boys’ family lives — Lee suffering from an absentee mother and a callous brother, and Will growing up quiet and earnest in the shadow of his dead father — their situations don’t fall into easy categories.
In the absence of television and other worldly influences, Will sketches fantastical scenes and creatures, but his creativity is limited to the private confines of book pages and the walls of a bathroom stall. It’s not until a glimpse of Rambo: First Blood hits him like a lightning bolt that he turns his and Lee’s remake of the film into his own therapeutic creation: Son of Rambow.
So it’s not clear that Lee’s actually a bad influence on Will, since the entire experience is so cathartic. Will’s naivete, though, also makes him highly impressionable (the reason he fell in with Lee in the first place), so it’s a given that he’ll fall under Didier’s spell, as well.
He’s not the only one. Shortly after Didier’s arrival, the entire school gets caught up in his wake. Girls line up so he can assess their kissing skills, while the boys all start sporting the finest in ’80s hairstyles. It’s one of the film’s nicest touches that Didier turns out to be something other than what he appears, but in his short time at the school, the student body engages in just the sort of reinvention that Will is experiencing on a more personal level. In the world of Son of Rambow, however, it’s just as likely that all those other kids are dealing with issues just as seismic as those confronting Will and Lee.
So as much as Son of Rambow chronicles Lee and Will’s friendship, it also casts a keen eye on the confusion of adolescence, when something that smacks of the exterior world can shoot through a bunch of kids like a lightning bolt. Didier’s arrival is the equivalent of MTV hitting the airwaves for the first time, and while it’s funny to see everyone aping Didier’s fashion, dance moves, and affectations of boredom, it’s also cringe-inducing to remember that we did the same thing back in the day.
Son of Rambow is a cute movie, but its mix of surprising fantasy elements and wry humor also makes for a fairly crafty portrayal of kids finding their way in the world.