An immensely satisfying comedy about childhood friendship, Son Of Rambow is one of those rare British films which is at once culturally specific but directed with such confidence and visual panache that it should enjoy worldwide distribution. The work of hot UK director/producer team Jennings and Goldsmith aka Hammer & Tongs, the film was, ironically, not financed with the assistance of the UK Film Council but principally from French sources corralled by Paris-based co-producer and sales agent Celluloid Dreams. A massive $7.5m deal was sealed for most of the worldwide rights with Paramount Vantage at Sundance following the world premiere on Monday night.
Jennings drew on his own childhood to produce not only a richly nostalgic portrait of the 1980s but an exhilarating paean to the creativity of children. He has also coaxed two delightfully un-self-conscious performances from his precocious young actors - Bill Milner and Will Poulter.
The film should appeal principally to adults but children will also respond to its delirious humour. Arthouse audiences everywhere will be engaged by its joie de vivre and it has real potential as a specialised hit in North America where it should easily surpass other movies about British kids like Millions ($6.6m in 2005), Get Real ($1.1m in 1999) or Beautiful Thing ($1.5m in 1997), although it will have to go a long way to scale the $20m-plus heights of Oscar-nominated ballet dancer Billy Elliot.
The setting is suburban England in 1982. Milner plays Will Proudfoot, a young boy whose widowed mother is a strict member of the Plymouth Brethren and brings him and his sister up with a strict moral code that includes a ban on music or television. We even see the Brethren read Bible passages outside a local cinema playing the reprehensible First Blood starring Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo.
One day, he gets into a fight with the school tearaway Lee Carter, a pugnacious little bruiser whose scams, lies and brawling ways are constantly getting him into trouble. The two develop a tentative friendship and Carter invites him back to his house - part of a nursing home where he lives with his shady brother Lawrence (Ed Westwick) while his parents live in Spain.
Lee enlists Will to be the star of a home movie he plans to make and submit to BBC kids' film buff show Screen Test, but after he has inadvertently exposed Will to a pirated video of First Blood, the wildy imaginative Will decides that the film should be a sequel called Son Of Rambo - or Son Of Rambow, as he thinks it is spelt.
The two roam the countryside shooting their ambitious action opus and once Lee saves Will from a near-fatal drowning incident, they become blood brothers. Will's mother (Stevenson) is becoming anxious about her son's absences and the influences of the outside world on him, although she has no idea of the extent to which he has fallen.
Meanwhile a supercool French exchange student called Didier (Sitruk) becomes interested in Will's film project and consequently Will and Lee, previously social outcasts, find themselves embraced by the most popular kids in school and even granted access to the Sixth Form Common Room. But as Didier becomes more involved in the film, the friendship between Lee and Will becomes strained. A Rambo-style showdown is inevitable.
Jennings makes no concessions to an international market in his use of English teen expressions ('skill') and UK cultural references (Screen Test) but he also relishes the new romantic fashions and pop music of the time which everyone around the globe - of a certain age - can appreciate.
Best known for his commercials and music video output, Jennings gives the film an unusually fresh and colourful look, squarely avoiding the cliched greyness of England's weather (and much of its cinema), and enhances the boys' adventures with First Blood clips, some cheap and cheerful special effects and an upbeat music score composed by Joby Talbot.
But for all the colour of the schoolyard and the nostalgia for the time period, the film's greatest strength lies in the touching relationship between Will and 'Lee Carter' (Will insists on calling him by both names). Jennings and his unfettered actors capture the tenderness and affection between these young boys who find comfort, liberation and adventure in each other's company away from the confusing struggle of life without sufficient parental guidance.
Celluloid Dreams Productions