If it is true that you can't tell a book by its cover, then you can't tell a DVD by its packaging either. At first glance, Son of Rambow is likely to be a turn-off. With that title one could be forgiven for thinking that it is a moronic spoof of Sylvester Stallone's interminable franchise.
On the contrary, this film is a charming, funny and at times deeply touching tale of growing up as an outsider and finding friendship. It is likely to leave adults rifling through old memories of childhood bonding. Children will just find it a blast. It is also something we don't see enough of these days. It comes from an almost forgotten tradition of European filmmaking for children - it is set in rural England but was produced by companies from across the continent - that Hollywood has never really equalled.
It actually puts children first - in service of the story, not the box office. No one, perhaps, did this better than Eastern European filmmakers in the 1960s, and while Son of Rambow comes from a different place and time altogether, it does evoke a similar sense of quiet purpose. Moreover, the film's two stars, Bill Milner as the 11-year-old Will Proudfoot and Will Poulter as a slightly older Lee Carter effortlessly carry the action.
Milner plays the archetypal quiet kid in class who seems content to stay out of everyone's way. Raised in a strict Christian home that adheres to the teachings of the conservative Plymouth Brethren sect, he is forbidden from watching TV or films. When his teacher uses videos as teaching aids, he moves to the hallway, where he adorns his textbooks with tremendously detailed drawings interweaving fantasy with his real life. When Lee Carter, the school bully and all-round dislikeable guy, is thrown out of a neighbouring classroom, the seeds of an unlikely alliance begin to sprout.
"Lee Carter", as Will constantly calls him, cons Will into starring in a war movie that he is making with a video camera purloined from his older brother, Lawrence (Ed Westwick) who, given the habitual absence of their mother and her new husband, acts as Lee's guardian. Ever the older brother, Lawrence treats Lee like a dolt, clearly frustrated with and angered by the responsibility thrust upon him by irresponsible adults.
Meanwhile, at home Will is tussling with his mother's new boyfriend, a dour substitute for his own father, who died when he was very young. It is not only simple rebellion that forges the two boys' friendship but a very real, if unconscious, empathy for each other's plight. Their circumstances may be different - Lee lacks all parental guidance and control while Will has far too much - but these extreme opposites inevitably twist around to common ground: the need for a friend.
Will, of course, begins to exert his influence on the film, recreating his drawings and casting himself as "Son of Rambow" - a short scene from First Blood being the only film he has ever seen - coming to rescue his father from unidentified captors. Lee also makes Will his official stunt man, which leads to some hilarious scenes that perfectly capture that wonderful, childlike sense of invulnerability.
There is also a quirky subplot involving a group of French exchange students - one in particular, Didier (Jules Sitruk), whose outlandish fashion sense makes him the fascination of the school. He nearly brings to ruin Will and Lee's friendship but in the end there are subtle hints that when he returns to France, he may be just as much the outsider there as Will and Lee are in their English village.
Written and directed by Garth Jennings, the man behind 2005's big-screen adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Son of Rambow triumphs because it is a movie about childhood with a mature grasp of the complexity of this time of life. As a result, it's a great film for both kids and adults.