At first appearance, Will and Lee have almost nothing in common. Will is quiet and insular. He's not mistreated at school, but he appears to have no friends and receives no encouragement from his teachers. The religious beliefs practiced in his home provide him with little external stimulation. Music is forbidden, as well as television and film. One wonders if he's allowed to read books other than the Bible. As a result, Will lives in the world of his own vivid imagination, which he illustrates with a proliferation of drawings. Lee, meanwhile, is every teacher's nightmare. He's loud, rebellious and incorrigible. His teachers don't ignore him as they do Will; they despise him. He's pugnacious and provocative, and he's disliked by his classmates even more than by his teachers.
So, in common, both boys are outcasts, and both come from disquieting homes. Both are fatherless. Will's dad died of a heart attack. Lee's father abandoned his family. Will's mother (Jessica Hynes) runs a stern and humorless home. She loves her son but is largely incapable of showing affection. Moreover, she's engaged in an elongated and romantically parched relationship with her church's lay minister (Neil Dudgeon), who seemingly tries to court her by demonstrating that he can make Will even more miserable than she does.
Lee's mother spends most of her time abroad with her second husband, leaving the 12-year-old in the supervision of his college-age older brother Lawrence (Ed Westwick), who alternates between humiliating Lee for the pure sport of it and treating him with dismissive contempt. It is not surprising, then, that in the early passages of their relationship, Lee treats Will much as Lee has been treated by Lawrence.
One last difference in the two boys' lives proves pivotal in the events of the film's narrative drive. Though both boys are emotionally deprived, Lee's home is materially prosperous. Lee has an elaborate video system, including editing equipment, and a tripod-mounted video camera. Using this equipment, he hopes to make an action movie and submit it to a national amateur filmmaking contest. He initially sees Will as a weakling he can exploit to work on his film, particularly to perform dangerous stunts like being catapulted or forced to jump from tree limbs with an opened umbrella for a 'parachute." To Lee's surprise, Will takes to these assignments with the dedication of a daredevil and the enthusiasm of a cheerleader. Soon, it's Lee who is looking out for Will's safety and allowing him to take the lead in story development. A friendship is born from artistic collaboration.
The story eventually is complicated by the arrival at the boys' school of a group of French students, led by the ludicrously 'cool" Didier Revol (Jules Sitruk), who makes the girls faint and the boys jostle for association. Didier has big hair with an Elvis forelock, fire-engine-red boots and a swagger that would make John Wayne envious. When he petitions for a role in our heroes' film, they are instantaneously swept from outside to in.
Little of this, save for the trials of growing up, is conventionally believable. The film's narrative events, though treated straightforwardly, reside in the realm of the fantastic. With their video camera and hilariously funky script, Will and Lee play a game of make-believe that propels them into a make-believe version of their own lives. Bracing lessons hover in the subtext. Religious devotion without human compassion is despicable. Popularity without substance is fleeting. Art is a sanctuary. True friendship is precious.
Son of Rambow (no, I can't account for the 'W") is always entertaining, but it's more than that. It is smart about human relationships. It's funny, and it's touching. It's a delight.