Son of Rambow (Paramount Vantage) belongs to a mini-genre of films about socially disadvantaged children who find liberation from their grim circumstances by making art. Roll your eyes all you want, but just try watching the "chance to dance" scene in Billy Elliot without feeling your heart lift. The second outing from Garth Jennings and Nick Goldsmith, the director/producer team who made the hit-or-miss Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, lacks Billy Elliot's tonal control, and the two nonprofessional kids who play the leads aren't quite as life-threateningly adorable as Jamie Bell. Still, Son of Rambow bristles with the anarchic energy of late childhood and a genuine respect for the life-changing power of movies—even (or especially) the schlocky ones.
In an English village in the mid-1980s, 11-year-old Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) is a shy, scrawny boy whose family belongs to a strict religious sect called the Brethren, in which all forms of modern entertainment are forbidden. Though he's never seen a movie, Will's imagination is richly cinematic: He secretly draws flip-art stories on the pages of his Bible and entertains wild fantasies about flying dogs and bucket-headed scarecrows. When the school bully, Lee Carter (Will Poulter), conscripts the hapless Will to appear as a stuntman in his home-video remake of Rambo: First Blood, Will proves to be not only a game-for-anything action star but a creative partner. Soon the remake has become an ambitious sequel, Son of Rambow. (The misspelling is Will's but is no doubt intended to help viewers distinguish this movie from Stallone's franchise as well.)
Will and Lee have little in common beyond an infatuation with moviemaking and a blithe disregard for physical danger, but collaborating on a fantasy about rescuing Rambo from his jungle captors brings the two lonely boys, both fatherless for different reasons, closer together. Yet the project, and their friendship, are threatened when an older, super-popular French exchange student, Didier Revol (Jules Sitruk, sublimely supercilious in a skunk-striped forelock and pointy New Wave boots), begins to horn in on the production.
Son of Rambow is about children but not necessarily for them. Like a vintage John Hughes movie, it's best appreciated by those just old enough to look back on their school days with a cringing nostalgia. Indeed, one party scene in the older kids' common room is a consciously Hughesian celebration of '80s junior-high decadence: Boys in asymmetrical haircuts line-dance to Depeche Mode, girls in fuchsia eye shadow loll about sniffing scented erasers, and the younger boys look on with awe (in Will's case) or scorn (in Lee's). When it's reconstructing the dollhouse world of middle-school social hierarchies, the movie has a tongue-in-cheek tone that's detached and romantic at the same time, like the well-chosen New Wave classics on the soundtrack.
But Like Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind, another recent indie about a pair of likable losers shooting homemade epics on a camcorder, Son of Rambow ultimately founders in sentimentality. The last 15 or so minutes pile one misstep onto another. First, Will and Lee's embrace of high-risk filmmaking catches up with them in an implausible and melodramatic climax; then, a previously unimportant character suddenly takes on unearned emotional significance in a hasty, sappy resolution. The last scene, meant to send audiences out on a cloud of good feeling, had me sinking down in my seat with its pre-telegraphed obviousness. But then the Cure's "Close to Me" kicked in over the credits, and I remembered the two leads' unaffected sweetness and absurd acts of derring-do, and I sort of wanted to sit through it again.