by DAVID WILDMAN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & G & lt;/span & arth Jennings seems to be a Brit with a fascination for other cultures. You can see it in most of his work so far: directing an REM video in 2001 for Imitation of Life that made ordinary Americans at a picnic look like strange creatures from another planet, and then, four years later, in the big-screen version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
His latest, Son of Rambow, is a fast-moving, truly funny film about identity and the loss of innocence, but there's another level to it -- a subtle underlying theme about how foreign influences have affected the culturally isolated Brits. Standing in as a metaphor for the British Isles is a strict little boarding school, where Lee Carter (Will Poulter), a delinquent kid, is secretly filming his own version of a Rambo film with a camcorder. Instead of doing the dangerous stunt work himself, his plan is to coerce the impressionable Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner), a younger boy whose family belongs to a strict Amish-like religious cult, to do it for him. It turns out that Will doesn't need much convincing. All it takes is for the pop culture-repressed kid to get one glimpse of Lee's bootlegged copy of First Blood, and he is suddenly reborn as a daredevil action hero. Also thrown into the mix is an invasion by the French (which is something that the British are used to). Here they are in the guise of a colorful group of exchange students that includes Didier Revol (Jules Sitruk), an androgynous pretty-boy rock star type who instantly becomes a sex symbol to the girls and a role model for the boys.
What makes the film work so well is the extraordinary care and inventiveness with which Jennings has crafted his characters and the natural, unaffected performances he coaxes out of these young, first-time actors. The two kids first meet in an interesting way. They are both in the school hallway, where Lee has been thrown out of class and where Will is forced to sit while the rest of his classmates watch a video. (He's not allowed to view TV of any kind.) Apparently, this is a familiar ritual for him, as he marks it by taking a drink from the fountain, keeping it in his mouth and then releasing it into the goldfish bowl in the hallway where he has to wait. Lee throws a tennis ball at his head and the two scuffle.
The detail with the spitting in the fishbowl is the kind of quirky character embellishment that Jennings employs to great effect throughout. We see Didier quickly becoming the laconic leader of a gang of boys in a series of vignettes with minimum dialogue. As director and writer, Jennings is subtle and outstanding, and his mastery of tone and pacing rivals Wes Anderson's work in Rushmore. He never lets his touches of wit come off as self-conscious or forced; he just simply moves on to the next scene.
Son of Rambow also has a unique look. From outstanding cinematography to inspired choices of set pieces like an abandoned nuclear power plant, plus amazingly animated fantasy sequences, Jennings has somehow managed to control each aspect of this production, putting his distinctive touch on every detail and yet still somehow remaining invisible enough to let the story carry the audience through. That's the mark of a great director.
One day only, Thursday, June 12, at AMC-River Park Square.