Everybody wants to make another "Napoleon Dynamite," a small-budget sleeper that cost about $1.98 to make and brings in millions at the box office. But it's not as easy as it sounds. Ask English writer and directer Garth Jennings, whose only previous big-screen effort was 2005's "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." Even though he tried with 2008's "Son of Rambow," and the studio put some effort into promoting it, it hardly made a ripple in the public's consciousness.
Anyway, few names in the history of cinema have become so iconic that people can find instant recognition in them, even disguised in the title of a largely unrelated movie. So it is with "Son of Rambow," a mildly pleasing, if highly uneven, British comedy-drama about a pair of youngsters' amateur filmmaking exploits.
"Son of Rambow" is a gentle tale, quite a small affair compared to the CGI-heavy "Hitchhiker's Guide" and much more personal. Set in the early 1980s in an English suburb, "Rambow" tells the story of two very opposite youths, aged around eleven or so, who form an unlikely friendship while filming a home movie about their hero, Rambo. As Jennings was born in 1972, it's not hard to see the biographical connections.
The MPAA gave the film a PG-13 rating for "some violence and reckless behavior." I like the "reckless behavior" part; I can't remember ever noticing that in a rating before. In any case, the film's gentleness makes it almost ideal for family viewing, except for two minor drawbacks. The first is that it's so gentle and sweet, it's close to dull, with the story line following formula to the letter. I'll get to the second drawback in a minute.
Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) is a shy, innocent, naive kid, raised in a devoutly religious family whose members cannot go to the movies, watch TV, or even listen to music. Will lives with his mother, grandmother, and younger sister. Another boy, Lee Carter (Will Poulter), is about the same age as Will but bigger and stronger. The antithesis of Will, Lee is a bully, a thief, a cheat, and a liar who lives with his older brother and pretty much does what he likes.
Lee persuades Will to help him make a film called "Son of Rambow," which he intends to enter in a BBC Television contest. Will doesn't really know Lee very well but consents to help out partly because he's afraid to refuse and partly because he's fascinated by this strange new person in his life. Naturally, everything you'd expect to happen does happen: the boys raise a little havoc; Will has to sneak out of the house behind his mother's back to participate; the rest of the school gets wind of the project and all the other youngsters want to be in on it, including the supercool new French foreign exchange student whom all the girls drool over; there's an inevitable climactic conflict; and everybody gets together in the end and learns a valuable life lesson. As I say, formula to the letter.
The other minor drawback for family viewing, though, may be more serious, and I'm not sure if the filmmakers meant it intentionally or not. As a coming-of-age story, the movie seems to suggest that it's good to move off on your own eventually and begin doing your own thinking for yourself, as Will does. But indirectly it also suggests that it's OK to disregard your parent's advice and direction in doing so. Since the movie rather stacks the cards in Will's favor by making his ultra-religious home life so repressive, it expects us to cheer when he breaks free. But he's only about eleven years old, and he learns to lie, cheat, and steal. It's not as though he's seventeen or eighteen when he makes these decisions. You can see why I doubt that a lot of parents might approve of the film's ultimate message of rebellion, to say nothing of its antireligious bent.
Then, there's the matter of the film's tone. Is it a comedy or a drama? Jennings surely meant it as a little of both, yet there is not enough original material to satisfy one's desire for either one. The humor is mostly of the slapstick variety, with Will stumbling around, getting shot at with a bow and arrow, falling out of a tree, that sort of thing. Conversely, the drama is mostly of the overwrought kind: exaggerated family tensions, tenuous interpersonal relations, and the close-to-disastrous consequences of the filmmaking gone amuck. There's nothing new here to compel one's interest.
I wonder, too, for what audience the filmmakers intended their movie. British kids may find it's not funny enough or "reckless" enough, and being set the 80s, they may not find it relevant to them today. American kids, on the other hand, would undoubtedly find the British accents hard to understand. That leaves adults, and for them the movie may simply appear old hat--not nostalgic enough, funny enough, or dramatic enough.
It's hard to knock "Son of Rambow," because its heart is surely in the right place. Yet so much of it just doesn't work, even in the details, that it's hard to get very excited about it. The videotape the kids are making, for instance, looks a lot better on screen than any videotape would ever look, no matter who made it. The religious angle is heavy-handed. And, perhaps worst of all, the movie itself doesn't seem that much better than the movie Will and Lee are making; both the film and the film-within-the-film display slapdash, improvisational, make-it-up-as-you-go-along peculiarities.
In every frame of "Son of Rambow" you can see the writer-director trying to create something sweet, gentle, humorous, and uplifting, and not quite succeeding. Which, in the end, hardly raises the film out of the ordinary.
The video presentation is the best part of the show, actually. The disc offers the movie in its original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio in an anamorphic transfer, enhanced for widescreen TVs. You'll find the picture quality bright and colorful, with excellent hues and shadings, reasonably good contrasts, decent definition, and a light film grain.
While the image is quite handsome, there is hardly anything going on in the audio department. The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound might as well be two-channel stereo for all the good the rear speakers make. There is virtually no surround activity I could notice, only an adequate front-channel stereo spread, and a minimum frequency range and dynamic impact. This is really not a condemnation of the audio track, however, simply an observation, as the movie never calls upon the sound to do very much.
I can't say that I liked the extras any more than I liked the film; they also seemed quite ordinary and lightweight to me. There's an audio commentary with director Jennings, producer Nick Goldsmith, and stars Bill Milner and Will Poulter that seems as if the filmmakers are having more of a good time together than they are enlightening us about anything. Still, it's pleasant enough. Following that is a twenty-six-minute featurette, "The Making of Son of Rambow," that repeats a lot of what the same four people said in the commentary. Next, we have "Aron," the director's original short film that inspired "Son of Rambow," followed by a five-minute amateur film, a "Son of Rambow" Website winner.
Things conclude with fourteen scene selections but no chapter insert (apparently a thing of the past); previews at start-up and even more previews in the main menu; English and Spanish spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
"Son of Rambow" is one of those good-intentions movies. It strives for the sentimental warmth of "The Sandlot" and the nostalgic laughs of "A Christmas Story," but it doesn't quite make it on either count. Mostly, it feels forced and tired, and, like its ending, contrived. Give it an A for effort, but I really don't think I'd want to see it again.
Final note: In an unusual marketing arrangement, for the indefinite future you will find "Son of Rambow" for sale only at Best Buy, but for rental at most major video stores.