Movies about childhood are, almost by definition, made by adults. Few oldsters can imaginatively re-create their early years, and when they try, the results are usually bland or bizarre. The classic movies about children – "The Red Balloon" and Alfonso Cuarón's "A Little Princess" are at the top of my list – are the ones in which the filmmakers somehow channel their own childhood with the guiding hand of experience.
"Son of Rambow" is not remotely in the same league as those classics but it has its small-scale charms. It never makes the mistake of condescending to its audience by turning its tykes into overgrown adults. The childhood experience feels emotionally accurate. English director Garth Jennings ("The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy") understands the universality of being a kid.
Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) is an 11-year-old in 1981 England who has been reared in relative isolation with his widowed mother as a member of a religious sect called the Plymouth Brethren that forbids any access to television, pop music, or nonbiblical texts. Will is a gifted doodler, though, and his best drawings are all about boys triumphing against adversity. When this pipsqueak rebel teams up with Lee Carter (Will Poulter), the school bully, it is a short leap to trouble. But the trouble is memorable: Lee shows Will a pirated copy of "First Blood," the first Rambo movie, and the boys set out to re-create it, right down to the stunt work, on video. Will, meanwhile, attempts to hide out from The Brethren, a feat even Rambo – or "Rambow" as the boys would spell it – might find imposing.
Jennings is onto something here. The '80s was the era when kids first had access to video cameras, and for many budding auteurs, this meant home-grown versions of favorite films. Lee and Will play out scenes from "First Blood" that, in some ways, are more enjoyable than the Stallone version. (For one thing, the re-creations can't help but be parodistic, and the Rambo series needs all the laughs, intentional or otherwise, it can get.)
Both Milner and Poulter are first-time actors, and this works to the film's advantage. They don't have that overrehearsed quality that most child actors acquire. The boys can embody childhood innocence because they're the real deal – and Jennings is skillful enough to show off their amateurishness in all its charm.
My only regret is that the film could not somehow take a leap forward to 1988. I would love to have seen what Lee and Will could do with "Die Hard." (PG-13, for some violence and reckless behavior.)