“Son of Rambow” is the kind of film a critic feels almost obliged to like. It means so well, its heart is so big, its characters are often so real that I was on its side from the start. Even as it dipped into emotional dishonesty and unearned warm fuzziness, I kept hoping it would right itself. But it would be just as dishonest of me to say that it's more than an endearing, well-acted trifle with lovely intentions.
Writer-director Garth Jennings has based it loosely on his own experiences of life in England in the early '80s. He'd presumably be closer in temperament to juvenile delinquent Lee (Will Poulter), whose one absent parent has left him with a neglectful older brother. Lee lies, steals, bullies and wheedles, and his lone redeeming quality is the creative desire to make a film.
Lee acquires an unlikely collaborator in Will (Bill Milner), whose mother belongs to a religious sect that forbids watching TV or movies. Will accidentally sees “First Blood” one day – what an initiation to cinema! – and decides to help Lee shoot “Son of Rambow,” an action movie that will transform their lives.
So far, so funny, especially when the two devise Road Runner-like stunts that almost get Will killed. Jennings begins to touch us, too, as Lee feels less alienated and acquires the sense of self-worth that's been missing. Making this wacky little film becomes a chance for both boys to rebel against stifling authority, but Jennings isn't satisfied with so simple an idea.
He brings in Didier (Jules Sitruk), a supercilious French exchange student who wows the school and insinuates himself into the movie as its new star. (Really? An effeminate French kid in pointy red boots makes hard-bitten English boys bow down to him?)
Then comes the melodrama: life-threatening situations, teary reconciliations, the easy humbling of the wicked and triumph of the good. At this point, only the naturalness of the novice actors – especially Poulter, who seems genuinely angry and lost – holds the film together. As with the boys' homemade action film, paying audiences are asked to accept the will for the deed in “Son of Rambow.”