(04/04/08) – Nostalgia is a strange beast and seems to have become almost an obsession with television’s seemingly endless ability to recycle itself to the extent that "I Love 2007" seems a distinct likelihood in the not too distant future. Recently series such as Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes have tapped into the trend of contrasting today with yesterday. Film-makers, too, often turn to their youths as a springboard for their fantasies; Tim Burton’s love of old horror films permeates his work while George Lucas’s obsession with cars as a youth transformed into American Graffiti. Looking to the past has always been a part of cinema. The same could be said for recycling or reviving old franchises; remaking fondly recalled horror films or jump-starting pre-existing franchises like Die Hard, Rocky or Rambo.
Aaaah, Rambo. Back on the scene after a twenty-year hiatus it is with perfect synergy that Son of Rambow arrives on our screens, harking back to when the first film of the franchise was released in UK cinemas. It’s part of a new wave of films that look back at the decade everyone wishes they forgot, from Shane Meadows’ blistering This Is England to the contemporary set but 1980s looking Be Kind, Rewind. Like Michel Gondry’s film Son of Rambow is concerned with amateur film-making in homage of big-screen blockbusters, of the strange attraction that video tape holds to people of a certain generation that the 1’s and 0’s of the digital free-for-all can not. Like Meadows’ film it goes back to 1980s England, although as a nostalgic reflection of change and childhood rather than the erosion of society and the loss of innocence.
Will’s religious upbringing in a Plymouth Brethren family means that he is denied access to childhood frivolities such as television or the cinema. When he is waiting outside class because the teacher is showing the other pupils an educational video he comes into contact with rough diamond Lee Carter. Carter, virtually parentless who lives in the family’s old age pensioners’ home, is always involved with dodgy deals, particularly when it comes to anything involving his bullying brother. The latest scam is pirating videos and it is during the dubbing of First Blood that Will sees his first movie. It may well be his last as the persuasive Carter sets about a cunning plan: to win Screen Test using his brother’s video camera. This involves Will playing the central character in a sequel to First Blood – Son of Rambow. And he has to do all his own stunts.
Garth Jennings follows the mid-budget Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy with this more modestly priced picture and with far more satisfying results. Son of Rambow is a warm, nostalgic, occasionally touching and very funny look at life in the 1980s. Screen Test, the BBC film quiz show for children, used to conclude each show with a short film submitted by young film-makers, encouraging a generation of budding directors and actors. Lee Carter’s aim is to win Screen Test and therein lies the film’s brilliant play between innocence, comedy, pain and expression. Will is an artist too, feverishly doodling on anything he can lay his hands on, his imagination spilling out into a number of the film’s charming, deliberately naïve, animated sequences.
When collaborating with Carter on Son of Rambow he puts himself in many perilous situations – launched in the air, swinging on ropes and generally pummelled in all directions as each subsequent stunt becomes more ludicrous than the last. The ramshackle on-the-fly film-making is childlike in its stream of consciousness inventiveness – pinecones double for grenades, a scarecrow becomes an enemy. Matters get even more out of control when the school is visited by a coachload of French exchange students, including Didier Revol, so cool he’s hated by every boy and desired by every one of the girls, who line up for kissing inspection. How cool? He uses hair-gel, has winkle-picker shoes and can light his cigarettes with exposed electrical cables. That cool.
Naturally being a British comedy there is a serious subplot to all this – namely the boys’ need for a fantasy outlet because of the pressures of their family lives. Will’s strict Plymouth Brethren upbringing sees his well-meaning mother Mary (Jessica Stevenson) imposing the will of her suitor, a Brethren leader, upon him, while Carter faces violence from his hedonistic brother and is forced to work in the home with the old people. This does make the characters feel more rounded and their need to escape more palpable. Both young actors, Bill Milner and Will Poulter, do a great job of bringing these two boys to life in their debut roles.
Garth Jennings has produced a genuinely touching, warm and uplifting comedy about an unlikely friendship. A delightful coming of age film that is highly recommended. Even Sylvester Stallone gave his blessing to the film and got the trailer included before some showings of Rambo. How sweet.
Son of Rambow is released in the UK today.