Movies romanticise everything, but nothing more than childhood. Setting aside the heavily dimpled phenomenon of children in most Hollywood movies, even movies about child-murderers (I’m thinking Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher) make childhood out to be ecstatic. Something about that goldfish-brained tribe of ankle-biters seems to entrance film-makers. Perhaps because kids, like directors, think the world revolves around them. Perhaps because kids, like movie heroes, define themselves by action. Whatever the case, Son of Rambow (the latest movie to equate childhood with bliss), is an unabashed love letter to the tender age where imagination rules.
Two boys meet in a school corridor. Each has been sent out of lessons for a different reason. Near-mute Will (Bill Milner) belongs to a strict religious order that forbids him to watch a Geography video like the rest of his class. Born-rebel Lee Carter has been kicked out (yet again) for arguing with his teacher. A sticky back plastic sort of friendship forms (one boy somewhat hesitantly glomming on to the other), and before long the pair decide to re-make Rambo using a home-video camera and bountiful pre-teen ingenuity. Hurdles to overcome include: a flying dog and a demonic scare-crow, but Will and Lee are of an age when “best friends” are invincible.
What Son of Rambow gets is that childhood movies are built on fear of being alone. That’s the part of childhood that least changes with age. No-one is ever grown-up enough not to need a friend. Whether we are outwardly bullet-proof, like Lee Carter; or all-too-obviously desperate, like Will; the only difference between children and adults is that children are mostly wrong when they say no-one cares about them, and adults mostly don’t say, preferring to muddle on. Manipulative it undoubtedly is when Lee Carter says (of his nogoodnik brother): “He’s all I’ve got!”, but it’s manipulation on a Toy Story level, a welcome manipulation (as when Sarah MacLachlan sings “When She Loved Me” in Toy Story 2, and you’d have to be a goddamn robot not to cry). Adults go looking for catharsis in stories of childhood. We’ve been doing it since Peter Pan. Loneliness gives birth to Neverland every bit as much as Son of Rambow.
Not that Son of Rambow dwells on sadness. This is far too much a movie told from a ten-year-old’s perspective to have much truck with melancholy. There’s a wonderful scene where Will confesses to Lee how his father died (aneurism, mowing the lawn) and the two boys laugh because it was a silly way to die – and when you’re ten, the great benefit is that you can acknowledge things as they are, without worrying about decorum. Watch for the scene where Will tries to lick a piggy-bank he’s been given to hold. That priceless expression he adopts when confronted, as if to say: I just felt like licking it. There is no more explanation for what kids do than there are good reasons for dogs to chase their tails. They just do. Because they don’t have responsibilities. Their single, overriding prerogative is to occupy their time as enjoyably as possible.
Kids in movies get better lines than real kids. They have a lot less spots and their teeth are less chipped. By the nadir-standard of Home Alone, the boys in Son of Rambow are models of realism, but they still don’t behave like real children. They aren’t supposed to. Their function is the same Tom Hanks or Meg Ryan in a movie romance. They are there to channel their audience; not to remind them of their lives, but to remind them of their happy thoughts. And sure, there are those critics who will carp that the results are twee, that Lee and Will live in a fantasy universe, but Son of Rambow was made to be allowed its failings. We all get a bit soppy around kids.