The term, in case you haven’t heard it, is “sweding.” It comes from Michel Gondry’s mostly ignored film Be Kind, Rewind. It refers to the act of remaking something from scratch and in a ridiculously inexpensive manner with whatever is at hand. The Internet is rife with sweded films (Star Wars re-shot in someone’s garage, Raiders of the Lost Ark re-done with Legos, Night of the Living Dead re-animated with stick figures).
Now comes the whimsical British import Son of Rambow to add a whole new chapter to the mostly fictional history of the art of sweding. Produced, written and directed by Nick Goldsmith and Garth Jennings (known collectively as the avant-garde video art duo “Hammer & Tongs”), Son of Rambow takes us back to the dawn of the video age when a VHS copy of Sylvester Stallone’s First Blood was as good as gold.
The story centers around Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner), the preteen son of a small-town British widower who belongs to a fundamentalist, Amish-like religious sect. Sheltered Will attends public school, but he’s naive in the ways of the world, unexposed as he is to television, movies, music and other forms of popular culture.
One day, Will strikes up a tenuous friendship with his school’s resident troublemaker, the freckle-faced hellion Lee Carter (Will Poulter). Lee is viewed by most at school as a bully, but he’s really just a latchkey kid looking for any kind of attention, good or bad. While hanging out at Lee’s house, Will is exposed to something utterly mind-blowing and life-changing. Lee has snuck a hulking video camera into his local theater and pirated a copy of the original Rambo movie, First Blood. Watching the cartoonishly violent action film, Will is exposed to his first taste of pop culture—and he loves it.
Will and Lee soon come up with a mad plan to shoot their own home-video sequel to the film. Lee, owning the camera, will shoot it. Will, being the most compliant, will star in it, performing all his own ridiculous (and occasionally dangerous) stunts.
Son of Rambow is a tribute to youthful vigor and imagination, and to the pure, blissful power movies have over us. As their work progresses, the boys add all sorts of crazy, outsized flourishes, like a flying dog who shoots missiles—all of which must be accomplished with no budget and no resources. Eventually, word of Will and Lee’s no-budget epic leaks out in their school and everyone wants to get involved. As the project gets bigger and more involved, surrendering to more and more contributors, Will and Lee’s friendship becomes strained—a nifty parable pitting indie auteur vision against Hollywood-by-committee filmmaking.
There are a number of subplots weaving throughout the moviemaking-within-a-movie story. Will struggles to conceal his filmmaking activities from his restrictive mother. Lee chafes at the absentee parenting skills of his mother and father. A swooningly popular French exchange student threatens to take over the starring role in Will and Lee’s movie. This hodgepodge of stories manages to keep the thin plot moving forward, but none of them feels quite fully realized.
Stylistically, this simple indie film is a major reversal from Jennings and Goldsmith’s first feature outing, the expensive (and only marginally successful) adaptation of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In the final total, Son of Rambow is more cute than funny, more nostalgic than dramatic. Most of the humor here derives from Will’s gung ho willingness to subject himself to all forms of humiliation in the name of art (catapulted into the air, thrown into a river, tossed from a Jeep). Kids will get continued laughs out of it, but some adults may grow weary of the slapstick.
Inspired as much by the teen-dream films of John Hughes as by the comic book canon of John Rambo, Son of Rambow is a warmhearted, sweet-natured fable about friendship, imagination and the giddy thrill that movies sometimes impart. It would be nice to say that Son of Rambow imparts that exact thrill, but the filmmakers can’t quite manage to kick it up to that level. If you--like me—spent a certain percentage of your childhood making junky backyard movies, you’ll empathize with our heroes here. But—like the sweded film-within-a-film at the heart of this story—Son of Rambow is more likable than it is skillful.