May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
December 9, 2008
“Let those who like society better have it.”
(J.N. Darby, a Brethren founder)
“There are no friendly civilians!”
Son of Rambow is a film I have personal connections to in three ways. I was raised in a far less conservative branch of the religious community its main character belongs to (the Plymouth Brethren). The way the film matches Will Proudfoot’s discovery of something outside the world circumscribed by his church with the frequent appearance of 80’s New Wave hits parallels the way I caught glimmers of an untold world in the REM, Clash, and The Cure tapes my older brothers would play way back when (it even includes a Siousxie track from the first tape I ever dubbed). And I have seen Rambo: First Blood many, many times – enough times that it has actually achieved some of the transcendence ascribed to it by Will’s fertile imagination. Though the film is not really interested in the largely unknown religious affiliation it borrows to round out its characters, Son of Rambow is an excellently told story about a young, disinterested member of a conservative Christian community living a parallel life fed by the images and stories of a different culture. Probing the emerging imagination of a mind in first contact with a civilization he can only respond to with childlike creativity, it is an unwitting record of the same kind of faith journey many kids in Will’s context have undertaken.
One day in his garage, Lee shows Will a bootleg copy of the first Rambo movie. To Will, for whom dancing, TV, and a host of playground reputation boosting activities are taboo, it is a revelation. A fatherless child in a family that belongs to an exclusive Plymouth Brethren assembly, Will has never had a friend like Lee, largely content to keep to himself and the stacks of notebooks in which he animates flipbooks. Lee is outside the expected circle of his associations, and despite the aggressive pastoral admonition of one of his elders, Will’s increasing disassociation with the Plymouth Brethren takes shape in their mutual admiration for Sylvester Stallone. Energized by Lee’s directorial skill, they decide to make their own version of Rambo, a sweded First Blood featuring the death-defying stunts of Will Proudfoot. The more violent scenes are recreated periodically by Will’s imagination – splicing Rambo footage, animation, voiceover, and puppetry into complex dreamscapes through which the impact of his father’s loss becomes clearer. When a recent arrival of French foreign exchange students meets their need for additional talent, the film takes a turn towards the ridiculous. Moving through different sets of animation, film-within-a-film set pieces, and general kid movie craziness, it collapses in a heap of tidy knots that attempt to shore up the intelligent energy which set the whole film in motion.
It is probably my uncanny biographical parallels to the film that let me overlook the flawed way its director tries to wind it down, but I connect to the frayed wires of its imagination nonetheless. As a mashup of Will’s conservative religious heritage, his animated imagination, The Human League, and Rambo, the film is able to generate a far more interesting sense of place than the sum of its parts. And lurking in the title is a darkness that sets all this innocent playfulness in relief. Lacking any father figures other than an intrusive, overbearing elder that spends an awful lot of time at their dinner table, Will latches onto Rambo as a surrogate mentor. Having found a father than can actually work within the context of his active imagination (one no doubt forged in the death of his dad), Will’s faith journey takes an unsettling theological turn. In reading interviews about the film, I don’t think its director is fully aware of the implications of Will’s turn towards Rambo, but it is a biting metaphor for the rampant fatherlessness that pervades contemporary American Christianity nonetheless. Blue Like Jazz, Crazy For God, and The Shack are all recent popular texts that are marked by absent or inaffective fathers, and Son of Rambow toys with an identical apprehension. We are adrift in what Koolhaas called “orphaned space,” which more often than not we allow Rambo-like cinematic figures to reclaim. In a final nod to its Plymouth Brethren context, the end of the film does bring Will’s family back into the picture, possibly moving together towards shrugging off the more controlling aspects of their heritage. I see something very autobiographical in Will, who discovered the fantastical playfulness of a culture outside of the world circumscribed by the Brethren before having the critical faculties to deal with its tendency to consume us. Will’s remaking of First Blood is a fable of first contact, an untutored reaction to the fake relief offered in Hollywood storytelling. But despite the failure of Will’s first interaction with culture, his impulse to imitate, to try his own hand at finding himself in the task of culture-making, is thrilling.