*Son of Rambow (PG-13)
Kimball's Twin Peak
When a grade-school thug gets the good kid in trouble at the beginning of Son of Rambow, the former tries to make small talk with the latter.
"What's your name?" Lee asks. When his accomplice won't answer, Lee grabs the boy's notebook full of flip-cartoons and monster drawings reads, "Will Proudfoot," and then smacks his new pal over the head with it.
It's one of many small, funny moments that, in a flash, convey more charm and insight into the characters than the entirety of Speed Racer, that other allegedly kid-friendly flick currently in theaters.
Son of Rambow comes from writer-director Garth Jennings, who previously helmed The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy but here is adapting his first sweet-but-not-saccharine screenplay about friendship, broken homes and most importantly love of movies.
Before the two protagonists meet in 1980s England, Will (Bill Milner) spends his time praying outside movie theaters while Lee (Will Poulter) is inside, smoking and bootlegging Rambo: First Blood. Lee tricks Will into coming to his house, convincing the innocent that the principal is going to "torture" them for breaking the school's fish tank, and offering to take the blame if Will gives him his watch and bikes him home.
While hiding from Lee's older brother, Lawrence (Ed Westwick), and his tough friends, Will catches a taste of Rambo on Lee's VCR. Because Will's family is part of a religious sect known as the Brethren, he's never seen a movie or TV show before. Soon he's imagining himself in a torn headband and sleeveless camouflage, ready to blow up the bad guys. And he's really psyched when Lee further demands help with his pet project, a home movie Lee plans to enter in an amateur filmmaking competition.
Will later lies to his mother (Jessica Stevenson) and the next day returns to Lee's house with sketches and a "Rambow" story in mind. Only he doesn't want to play the muscular hero he wants to be the hero's son, on the hunt for his missing father. It's a subject the boys are both familiar with, Will's having died unexpectedly and both of Lee's parents generally absent.
Though their film is initially a quiet collaboration, Will is thrilled when word gets out and other kids, most impressively a super-cool exchange student named Didier (Jules Sitruk), want to take part, too. Will embraces his newfound popularity, pogo-ing at dances and praising everyone's acting; Lee has the opposite reaction, feeling like an outcast among the kids he's ordinarily bullying because he doesn't know how else to behave.
There are three marvels here. Poulter has a perfect face for a playground thug, and Milner recalls the saucer-eyed sweetness of Freddie Highmore. Both are incredibly natural in roles that ask them to be alternately goofy, angry and melancholy, qualities that are further emphasized in the film's third gem: the boys' movie itself.
Though fantastical CGI elements occasionally burst on-screen throughout the story, the highly amusing movie-within-a-movie employs old-fashioned effects and ingenuity to capture battle scenes, wounds, even a flying dog. And Poulter's and Milner's "bad" acting in the amateur film only proves that these kids like Jennings himself are talents to watch.