No adult has ever been able to codify what separates a good movie from a classic. In kid terms, though — those favored by Son of Rambow — a good movie merely sends you bounding home from the theater. A great movie demands some further physical response, like beaning your neighbor with a volleyball. And a classic? Simple. A classic makes you want to make movies.
In the distant 1980s — when Son of Rambow is set — "classic" wasn't the word anyone would have used to describe First Blood, the moody revenge thriller that begat Sylvester Stallone's segue to mush-mouthed killing machine.
Watch First Blood, however, from the POV of a lonely, picked-on tween-age boy, 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 while 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. All but abandoned by his parents, 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.
Lee has to cajole, bully, and guilt-trip his naïve new chum into starring in his top-secret home movie. What it takes to make a believer of Will is a glimpse of Hollywood's forbidden fruit on Lee's VCR. The movie's cleverest sequence follows Will as he dashes home, his head buzzing for the first time with celluloid excess. The new sensations fuse with the dream language of movies: Lee's overhead fluorescent lights morph into Universal's horror thunderbolts; a neighbor's noisy pooch becomes a literal dogfight pilot.
Jennings finds a tone here that's more winsome and less wacky than his film version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. 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 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 — boilerplate 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 — the delight in finding a film that seems to express or coalesce some inchoate yearning, including a yen to share.