Kids in movies have been allowed (allowed? encouraged!) to overact for so long that I fell in love with Son of Rambow, where the performances are spot-on - out there a bit, rambunctious even, but never treacly, no mousketeering. Like so many movies before it, this one's about the power of a child's imagination, but for once the movie itself is imaginative. Director Garth Jennings, who also wrote the script, remembers exactly what it was like to grow up during the early-to-mid-'80s, when Sylvester Stallone and Madonna were spreading their messages around the globe, when videocameras and videotapes suddenly turned everybody into potential filmmakers, even a lonely lad trapped in a religious sect that frowns on anything having to do with entertainment.
Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) is a member of the Plymouth Brethren, the same church that Garrison Keillor grew up in, and about the only creative outlet he has is drawing flip-art cartoons in his Bible. Actually, he covers the pages with a riot of words and images - a beautiful metaphor, which is just sitting there, not underlined. For religious reasons, Will has to sit in the hallway when his class watches documentaries. That's where he runs into Lee Carter (Will Poulter), a scamp who makes Huck Finn look like a choirboy. Lee steals anything that isn't nailed down, and if there's time he'll try to pry the nails loose. He's always being sent out into the hallway to collect his thoughts. And when he sees Will out there, he introduces himself by beaning him with a tennis ball.
They become friends, of course, Lee teaching Will everything he hasn't been learning in bible school, Will serving as Lee's partner in crime, occasional punching bag and film crew. That's right, film crew. Lee's gotten his hands on a videocamera, and he's making a sequel to First Blood, the original Rambo movie, back when Stallone still had some credibility. Will takes to filmmaking like a duck to holy water, eternal damnation be damned. And we realize that, for him, it's a revolutionary act. Son of Rambow returns us to the days when, suddenly, movies were no longer necessarily up there on a screen. They were down here where people lived. And like so many filmmakers before them, these two use their movie to work through some family issues, some life lessons.
Absent fathers get relied on a lot in movies about wayward boys, but Jennings doesn't lean on it too hard, just makes sure we get the point. And he avoids sentimentality until the end, when he apparently can't stop himself. The movie itself plays like a cartoon. (The soundtrack music sometimes sounds like something off The Simpsons.) And the period feel - parachute pants on the boys, teased hair on the girls - is delightful. I should have mentioned that Son of Rambow is set in the English provinces, which only adds to the movie's offbeat charm. The kids are getting their pop-culture fixes second-, if not third-hand. Which is why the arrival of a French foreign-exchange student (Jules Sitruk), in full Adam Ant regalia, sends a shudder through the entire student body. He's got it going on.
And guess whose movie he wants to be in? Jennings pulls deftly comic performances out of all his young actors, but the two leads are something special. As Lee, Poulter is nothing short of amazing, a whirlwind of hyperactivity. As Will, Milner skillfully handles the perhaps more difficult task of showing us a good little kid who needs to take a few steps, if not an entire walk, on the wild side. As with Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, Son of Rambow shows us what a good influence a bad influence can be.