15-year-old Oliver Tate (Roberts) is an unusually smart, serious and self-aware outsider, awkwardly trying to navigate his teen years in Swansea during the late ‘80s while imaging day-to-day events playing out like a movie. Though managing to win over feisty rebel Jordana (Paige), a girl slightly more confident and popular than himself, Oliver’s temporary happiness is interrupted when his parents begin having marital problems. With his unsatisfied mother (Hawkins) drawn towards a returning ex-boyfriend (Considine) and his repressed father (Taylor) sliding back into depression as a result, Oliver puts his own relationship on hold to save theirs…
The latest hip indie film to infiltrate the mainstream, Submarine is the debut feature film from cult-favourite comic actor Richard Ayoade. Though widely known as uber-geek Maurice Moss from channel 4 sitcom The IT Crowd, there’s a few strings to his bow (he appeared in and edited scripts for The Mighty Boosh, co-created the criminally under-watched cult spoof Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, directed music videos for a number of top indie bands) – and this might be his truest calling yet. Writing and directing, the familiar coming-of-age narrative isn’t ground-breakingly original, but the tricky-to-pronounce Ayoade instils enough truthful drama and quirky black comedy that it feels refreshing.
And, despite his TV origins, it’s also impressively cinematic. Employing a number of off-kilter stylistic choices (extreme close-ups, section titles, dramatic cues), the independent stylings will inevitably cause mainstream audiences to write it off as ‘weird’, but the visual devices aren’t just there for the sake of it. Reflecting the importance with which Oliver attaches to various happenings and events, the arthouse style illustrates the way he imagines his life playing out as a movie (picturing a slideshow for his and Jordana’s blissful honeymoon period, imagining a zoom-out at a key moment). Of course, your average viewer won’t ‘get’ it and will quickly lose interest, but if you were that sort of introspective cinefile teen, then Submarine will feel like it’s speaking directly to you.
But while the stylings clearly take influence from the French New Wave and recall Michel Gondry’s visual inventiveness, there’s also notable shades of Woody Allen (having a neurotic, unusually self-aware narrating main character) and, most obviously, early Wes Anderson (smart, socially-awkward protagonists dealing with adolescence). Importantly, Submarine is easier to warm to than Anderson’s occasionally bizarre, quirkaholic sensibilities though, playing out like a more heartwarming Rushmore by way of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and – wait for it – Gregory’s Girl. Enveloping all of this is a delightful score from The Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner, which lends the movie a floaty, golden era vibe.
Dark and difficult without being depressing, charming and sweet without feeling sentimental, it’s an obviously personal tale, with Ayoade adapting Joe Dunthorne’s source novel with (presumably) his own experiences of youth. Transporting the books’s noughties setting back to the mid-to-late eighties (approximately ’86 since Crocodile Dundee is showing), it’s an era of typewriters, videotapes and cassettes, which somehow all adds to the story’s nostalgic feel of remembered youth. Of course, it’s funny (although arguably more consistently amusing than laugh-out-loud hilarious), but where the movie scores is in finding poignancy in the most surprising of places (drawing further comparisons with Eternal Sunshine).
While some might view the tone as ‘depressing’ (it’s not), the writer-director uses this view to capture the invisibility of youth and the manner in which teens view minor emotional damage as the end of the world. Arguably, we’ve seen this viewpoint before. But what’s unique about Submarine is the sharp observation that while the majority of us don’t recognise those teen moments which will haunt our lives until looking back years later, some of us (like Oliver) do at the time, and aren’t sure how to feel. Must he wait till he’s 38 to deal with it? Will the meaning change? And do we attach added significance ourselves over time? Though likely only interesting to a certain type of viewer, it’s hugely interesting, thought-provoking stuff.
Similarly, we’ve seen characters like Oliver Tate before – too knowing, literate and self-aware to ever be accepted by the ‘normal’ sheepish crowds who will forever misunderstand his over-anxious nature and superior sense of taste. Likewise, his romantic journey is nothing new (brainy loner forced out of his comfort zone as he attempts to pull his polar opposite), but regardless, Oliver is a wonderful creation flawlessly brought to life by Craig Roberts. As the wild girl who drags him into new territory, Yasmin Paige is every inch as impressive, while Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins provide excellent work as Oliver’s parents (even if the former’s repression is a tad too frustrating). Paddy Considine, meanwhile, is as close to broad as the movie gets, having a ball as the new age bullshit guru.
Too indie for some, Submarine is a fine debut from Richard Ayoade. Quirky, amusing and beautiful, it’s highly recommended for cinefiles and those whose younger years were occupied by movies and introspection.