“All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” –Pablo Picasso
I came across this quote in, of all places, this week’s Sports Illustrated. Yesterday, I finally got around to watching Son of Rambow (2007) and found the quote and the film to be a perfect match. The film revels in child-like creativity while revealing the forces, both religious and secular, that seek to squash that creativity and individuality.
Son of Rambow features an unlikely friendship between the two lead characters, Lee Carter (Will Poulter, in his first feature film) and William Proudfoot (Bill Milner, also a feature film rookie), two young primary school boys in a small English village. The two couldn’t be more different as Lee is a scrappy loner whose mother has left him in the care of his older brother, while William is a member of the Plymouth Brethren community, a highly conservative religious group that strictly forbids friendships with non-Brethren and avoids engagement with worldly activities…even watching television. The film opens with Lee filming a local screening of Rambo: First Blood so that he can make bootleg copies for his brother. This inspires him to create an amateur version of a sequel the film for the Screen Test amateur film contest. As usual, at school one day, Lee gets sent out of class for misbehaving and encounters William sitting in the hallway as well because his class is watching a documentary. The two get into a bit of a fight and break a fishbowl. Lee agrees to take the blame for the accident if William will give him his watch. Though Lee skips out on his punishment from the headmaster, he fakes an injury from the imaginary punishment and guilts Lee into helping him with his film production…William will star as the son of Rambow. Thus begins their friendship. The film follows their filmmaking exploits and their increased popularity as other schoolmates find out about their work, particularly Didier Revol (Jules Sitruk), a French exchange student with his own cult following. Along the way, Lee and William experience a variety of ups and downs in both their relationship with one another and in their own personal lives.
The Picasso quote above is appropriate for the film because both Lee and William are immensly creative. William draws and doodles constantly, even in his Bible. In fact, it is this talent that Lee finds so appealing and beneficial for their working relationship. Lee exhibits a wild creativity in his ability to make it on his own, and to even dare to attempt making the film by himself before running into William. Yet William is plagued by his conservative religious community who, rather than allowing him to go see films in the local theater, makes him stand outside of it and read scripture on the street corner. He hides his illustrations from his family and Brethren with a vengeance, and when his mother begins to suspect that he is flirting too closely with the things of this world, she tells him that all their restrictions are for “his own good.” Lee, on the other hand, is under constant pressure to please and impress his older brother, which means that he must hide both his artistic endeavors his relationship with William, a skinny dork of a kid.
Yet as their popularity spreads, particularly through their association with Didier, the too-cool-for-school French exchange student, Lee and William’s relationship comes under attack from the ever-present cliques of primary school experience. William, through Didier, has an entre to life with the “cool” older kids. While he doesn’t necessarily want to be like them, he does find it fun to be around them. On the other hand, Lee either sees through their coolness or is simply unwilling to make more friends than he has to. Either way, he refuses to associate with William’s new friends and begins to shut himself off from his filmmaking partner as well. Furthermore, as the film and the school term end and the French exchange students depart, we learn that, in fact, Didier is not as cool as the British students thought he was but is rather the outcast and loner among his fellow French students.
Son of Rambow is a delight of a film, even, surprisingly, when it doesn’t focus on Lee and William’s amateur film project. In fact, the strong performances by Milner and Poulter actually drive the film and lend a believability to what, on the surface, is an unlikely friendship. Apparently, the two developed a fast friendship off-screen as well. Though it’s certainly a film for adults (in fact writer/director Garth Jennings had such a difficult time getting the film off the ground because potential backers didn’t see how to market an adult film starring kids), it’s definitely an appropriate film for older children and teenagers. A screening with youth groups would certainly work as the film effectively opens up discussions of friendship, creativity, and individuality.
Son of Rambow (96 mins.) is rated PG-13 for some violence and “reckless behavior” and is available on DVD. At the end of the day, however, what’s really wrong with a little reckless behavior?!