For most boys in the early 1980s, First Blood—in which a still recognizably human Sylvester Stallone wanders into a sleepy Northwest town, gets hassled by the local sheriff, and proceeds to pummel poor deputies like they're the Vietcong—was a bit of a milestone. John Rambo had scars and a really cool knife. He could survive a leap from a cliff and pinpoint the one tree in an entire forest from which to ambush an unsuspecting enemy. And above all, he just wanted to be left alone—the perfect hero for that strange stretch before puberty, when girls are suddenly more grown up and repeat viewings of an incredibly violent flick help soothe percolating hormones.
In Garth Jennings's admirable Son of Rambow (which was the opening-night film of SIFF 2007), two fatherless boys—the sheltered and devoutly religious Will (Bill Milner) and the bullying and all-but-abandoned Lee (Will Poulter)—bond while trying to remake First Blood for a BBC competition, encountering near-death experiences, religious interference, and très cool French exchange students along the way. For both boys, the Stallone flick offers an escape—Will finds a dream of a father; Lee sees a chance to impress the brother who ignores him—and while they shoot their little remake, Son of Rambow positively soars.
Throughout, Jennings keeps things loose, allowing humor to rise organically from his two leads, whose friendship feels completely authentic. It's only near the end, when the film flirts with cheap sentimentality in order to bring things to a close, that it risks derailing. But even that minor stumble is trumped by the sheer joy of watching Will and Lee in the dark, their creation flickering before their eyes.