Adapted from the 2008 novel by Joe Dunthorne, Submarine is the feature-film debut for director Richard Ayoade. Ayoade has been somewhat of a British television comedy luminary over recent years, with appearances on shows like The IT Crowd and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, the latter of which he directed and co-wrote. For his first film, Ayoade has predominantly eschewed his established form of comedy to concentrate more on poignant drama, rendering Submarine a shrewd drama-comedy about teen angst and the harsh realities of young love. While it does provide the occasional laugh, this is more of a quirky, almost arthouse-style fare. Suffice it to say, it’s an acquired taste, but those who can tolerate the material may find this to be an enjoyable coming-of-age fable benefitting from a dry sense of humour and idiosyncratic visuals.
Oliver Tate (Roberts) is a 15-year-old from Wales with an active imagination. In his free time, he enjoys memorising new words in the dictionary and listening to music by French crooners, not to mention committing the occasional act of petty arson. As he endures the British school system of the late ’80s, Oliver’s parents hit a spot of marital trouble that’s exasperated when Jill’s first love, a psychic named Graham (Considine), moves into their neighbourhood. Panicking, Oliver starts working to keep his parents from splitting up, but the domestic trouble is nothing compared to his experiences with quirky classmate Jordana (Paige) who agrees to have a relationship with the naïve lad.
Split into three chapters that are bookended by a prologue and an epilogue, Submarine doesn’t shy away from exploring the highs and lows of teenage love, not to mention the inanity of teen behaviour. Oliver wants to believe he’s emotionally mature, but this is contradicted by his actions at times. For instance, he tries to remake Jordana in his own image by giving her books he enjoys and taking her to see The Passion of Joan of Arc. Additionally, Oliver tries to be wise while working to reconcile his parents’ crumbling marriage, but his methods are juvenile. We’re also given a glimpse into Oliver’s psyche via constant narration and scenes depicting the protagonist’s self-obsessed fantasies. Ayoade’s love for cinema is on display from time to time as well, with Oliver’s internal monologues discussing movie clichés and even predicting what a biopic of his life would be like. Pretty much the entire story is told from Oliver’s perspective and is filtered through his viewpoint, allowing Submarine‘s visuals to say as much about Oliver’s character as the actor playing him. Consequently, this is more than just an eccentric arthouse flick with nothing to say – it’s a celebration of the idealism, brutality, innocence and stupidity of youth.
Guided with a sure directorial hand belying Ayoade’s status as a first-time filmmaker, Submarine is a visually striking flick which impressively captures the time and place of Britain in the 1980s. Ayoade ostensibly borrowed from Wes Anderson’s playbook for his mise-en-scène, with matter-of-fact shot construction, blocky chapter titles and dry humour. Ayoade also employed a variety of techniques to bring vivid life to Oliver’s mind, though the flick’s overriding atmosphere is grim and dank thanks to the constantly miserable weather. Meanwhile, the quirky, well-chosen soundtrack serves as a nice aural complement to the story. Narratively, the only flaw with Submarine is an out-of-place subplot that seems major but leads nowhere. Early in the story, Oliver feels guilty when he playfully taunts heavy-set girl Zoe (McCann) with a few classmates, causing the bully victim to transfer to another school. To atone for this, Oliver tries to contact Zoe through the school lunch lady, but the subplot is immediately dropped after this. There’s no satisfying payoff to Zoe’s story, and in the long run this stuff comes off as an unnecessary distraction. Admittedly, too, the pacing begins slowing down during the third act.
Craig Roberts is pitch-perfect as Oliver Tate, effortlessly selling the character’s wild imagination, contrived maturity, and utter naïveté. Alongside Roberts, Yasmin Paige is a delightful presence, and her performance allows us to understand why Oliver would be so smitten with her. Paige’s key strength is in her ability to simultaneously play merry and moody, and she’s able to comes off as uniquely quirky without seeming forced. Then there’s Paddy Considine (Dead Man’s Shoes) in the supporting role of the insipid New Age mystic who poses a threat to the marriage of Oliver’s parents. Considine is a frequent scene-stealer thanks to his high energy levels. Meanwhile, in more minor roles, Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor are understated yet incredibly rich as Oliver’s mother and father. Also keep an eye out for Ben Stiller, who executive produced the film and who has a quick cameo as an actor in a soap opera.
One could contend that Submarine is a paint-by-numbers coming-of-age tale, and that it ends on a very familiar note of hope. At the very least, though, the ending feels earned, and Ayoade refused to close the film on a completely blatant, artificial note. Submarine may not be a game changer, but it does give vibrant new life to an old story. Ayoade is definitely a filmmaking talent to keep your eye on.
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