Long ago, in the distant 1980s, when Son of Rambow is set, classic wasn't the word anyone would have used to describe First Blood—at least, not anyone above the age of consent for chocolate milk. A moody, proficient revenge thriller that heralded a coming wave of post-Vietnam sulking, it nonetheless begat Sylvester Stallone's segue from mush-mouthed punching bag to mush-mouthed killing machine. As a thrill ride, it's a lot slower to crank up than that other celluloid coaster of the early '80s, Raiders of the Lost Ark — which famously inspired three Mississippi 12-year-olds to spend six years risking life, limb, and one kid's basement filming their own VHS shot-for-shot remake.
Watch First Blood, however, from the point of view of a lonely, picked-on tweenaged boy — i.e., the sensibility that pervades it — and it's a projector-beamed bolt from the blue. In that light, John Rambo looks like Mattel's own adolescent-angst action figure: ostracized, misunderstood by the world, preyed upon by authority figures, and best of all, unencumbered by girls. No wonder the misfit heroes of writer/director Garth Jennings' whimsical comedy — two enterprising British schoolkids who set out to make their own Stallone-derived fireballapalooza—feel less kinship to Indiana Jones, the keeper of covenants, than to Rambo, the army of one.
Introduced bootlegging First Blood at the neighborhood movie house, scruffy little hustler Lee (Will Poulter), an Artful Dodger with bat-wing eyebrows and con-man cheek, has only the company of movies and a bulky camcorder. (The movie regards its '80s artifacts the way an archaeologist might peruse a stone ax: a shoebox-sized wireless phone looks like something Patton might've used to order troop maneuvers.) All but abandoned by his parents and mistreated by his caddish older bro, the conniving Lee takes a page from Rambo and passes along the hurt to someone else: a dreamy, repressed tyke named Will Proudfoot (the elfin Bill Milner), whose religion makes the sign of the cross against demon cinema.
Will may quietly adorn his notebooks with cartoon explosions and flip-corner mayhem — flights of fancy that Jennings renders in endearingly herky-jerky line animation — but Lee has to cajole, bully, and guilt-trip his naive new chum into top-lining his top-secret home movie. What it takes, ultimately, to make a believer of Will is a glimpse of Hollywood's forbidden fruit on Lee's VCR. The movie's cleverest, most exuberant sequence follows Will dashing home as his head buzzes for the first time with celluloid excess. The excitement of new sensations fuses with the dream language of movies: Lee's overhead fluorescent lights morph into Universal horror thunderbolts, while a neighbor's noisy pooch becomes a literal dogfight pilot.
Jennings, part of the celebrated Hammer & Tongs production team, finds a tone here that's more winsome and less desperately wacky than his film version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, especially as the movie within a movie mutates into quirkily revealing psychodrama. Will and Lee's escape into cinema proves contagious for the rest of their school — especially once a glamorously bored French exchange student (Jules Sitruk) staves off ennui long enough to kick some ninth-grade ninja asses. The project — kids acting out the playground equivalent of fan fiction — is powerful enough to overturn the school's hierarchy of cool. Soon, mousy Will is pogoing to the crazy new sound of Depeche Mode with a roomful of Space Dust—chugging hipsters — while Lee looks on miserably, hopelessly upstaged.
Their falling-out seems trumped up to provide last-minute conflict, as does the heavy-handed subplot involving the oppressive brethren of Will's church—boiler-plate complications that keep the movie away from Will and Lee's makeshift movie set for (too-)long stretches. But at its most likable, Son of Rambow evokes the rush of discovery that turns budding cinephiles into lifers — that delight in finding a film that seems to express or coalesce some inchoate yearning, including a yen to share.
Why is it that kids playing dress-up in blockbuster tropes rarely gets old? Perhaps more to the point, why does the idea of rough-hewn DIY cinema seem so appealing now? Son of Rambow's comrades and/or antecedents include not just the Raiders adaptation (itself being considered for filming) but also Rushmore's Max Fischer Players, Jonathan Caouette's Blue Velvet high-school musical in Tarnation, and the homemade video-store knockoffs in Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind. In differing ways, means, and styles, each celebrates the sandpapery texture and tenacity of scrappy personal visions whose flaws and grit are a welcome respite from generic mainstream gloss.