RetroPost: ‘Son of Rambow’ and the Ultimate Summer Fantasy

RetroPost is a weekly repost of an older Christ and Pop Culture that has some relevance to current pop culture events or releases.

This Week: Son of Rambow is the rare brilliant movie that you’ve almost certainly never seen. Fortunately for you, it’s now available on Netflix Instant Watch. To celebrate the movie’s new availability, we feature Carissa’s plea on its’ behalf.

Summer is the time for big-budget movies; it’s also apparently the season when we, in the eyes of studios, should prefer to watch escapist fantasy (not that fantasy is necessarily escapist, but studios seem to think that’s its primary value). So how about taking an hour and a half this summer to celebrate the ultimate cinematic fantasy: the dream that a community will actually recognize and embrace the talent and vision of an obscure and unlikely moviemaker? Such is the dream at the center of Son of Rambow, the first film written by The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy director Garth Jennings (who also directs here). Son of Rambow is ultimately uneven in quality, veering off into melodrama by its end, but even with its visible seams, it’s by far preferable to most of summer’s film-by-numbers offerings.

Son of Rambow was released in the summer of 2008, but unless you live in Los Angeles or New York, you probably had no chance to see it until it was released on DVD. Set in 1980s Britain, the film focuses on two very different boys who become fascinated with First Blood, the movie that introduced the world to Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo. One of the boys, Lee Carter (Will Poulter, soon to be seen as Eustace Clarence Scrubb in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), is the archetypal school troublemaker, though he also dreams of making a film and entering it in a young filmmakers’ competition. Will Proudfoot, on the other hand, is quiet and well-behaved; he belongs to a strict religious sect called “the Brethren” (it’s not really clear whether they’re supposed to be the Plymouth Brethren) that forbids its members from watching movies. The boys meet when Lee, forcibly expelled from his classroom by a teacher, lobs a tennis ball at Will, who has been sent into the hallway while the rest of his class watches a documentary. Despite this inauspicious beginning, Lee soon manages to recruit Will as an “extra” for his film.

It’s while Will is over at Lee’s house that he catches his first glimpses of video clips from First Blood. For some reason, either the character of Rambo or the new (to him) medium of film—or perhaps both—further inspires his own artistic endeavors: fanciful drawings covering his sketchbook and the walls of the boys’ bathroom. These drawings, under the influence of Rambo, begin to take on the frame of a story in which Will, as the son of “Rambow” (the misspelling presumably reflects Will’s ignorance of pop culture), tries to rescue his father from an evil scarecrow—with the assistance of a flying dog, no less. Lee agrees to use Will’s stories and artistic concepts as the basis for his film.

Son of Rambow could have easily become a film exploring the effect of violent movies on young boys, and perhaps that film would also have been interesting—but this is not that film. The real film takes for granted the boys’ assumption that Rambo is a worthy basis for their own cinematic masterpiece, and that’s fine. The real focus of the movie has to do with art and community. Lee and Will, despite their differences, are brought together into a partnership through their shared vision; that partnership is challenged when the boys disagree about whether their moviemaking should be opened up to the participation of a larger community. Didier, the popular French foreign-exchange student who swaggers through the school with a posse of English imitators in tow, discovers Will’s sketchbook and asks to be in the movie. Suddenly the two-person projects swells to a full cast and crew.

One of the most refreshing things about Son of Rambow is how Lee, Didier, and Didier’s followers all recognize Will’s giftedness and, despite his youth, his less-than-imposing physical stature, and his “weird” religious background, place themselves under his artistic leadership. Son of Rambow challenges us to remember the possibilities of childhood, rather than its pressures: especially the possibility that others will recognize talent and respect it accordingly. (The flipside is also presented in a later scene in the movie, in which we see Didier, who has been idolized by the English schoolboys, experiencing the utter scorn of his French schoolmates—popularity, Son of Rambow suggests, is largely an accident of circumstance, but talent has a chance of transcending circumstance.)

However, the film never really deals with the question of whether Will’s artistry is unique because of his strict religious background. The Brethren, for Will, seem to be defined by their prohibitions more than their faith-propositions—and that’s quite possibly the way a child would view such a sect. Whether it intends to or not, however, the film asks us to consider how Will’s lack of media exposure has shaped his art for the better. When he does discover film, the medium excites him and adds to his creativity, but it might not have been such an inspiration had movies been a part of his life from birth; even Rambo might have been merely flashing images and background noise to him.

Though Son of Rambow ultimately doesn’t wrestle enough with the questions of how Will’s faith community and his new artistic community should intersect—it’s implied that Will’s family will simply leave the Brethren, at least in part for his sake—I think it might be a particularly worthwhile film for those whose religious background restricted their participation in the arts, whether as observers or creators. Having never been in that position myself, I’m hesitant to judge how meaningful the film would be for others from a stricter upbringing, but I think it could help us all to remember that restrictions don’t always suppress our gifts; sometimes they call forth our gifts in new and unexpected ways. Again, I think Son of Rambow would be much more substantial and satisfying if it really explored the reasons that the Brethren opposed movies—and whether, in this particular community, they could somehow support their young brother without compromising the essentials of their faith. These are the tensions that we live out as Christians engaged in arts and pop culture, and these are the kind of questions some obscure summer movie near you (or, possibly, far from you) may be raising, even if they don’t always provide satisfactory answers.

About Carrisa Smith

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