Submarine is the latest coming-of-age story, this time set in 1980s Wales, and while not breaking any new ground, it manages to be witty, stylish, and a completely winning portrait of a unique kid and his unique view of the world.
Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is a 15-eyar-old kid with two life goals. He’s like to romance the rebellious loner Jordana (Yasmin Paige) and, if possible, lose his virginity in the process. Oliver is also on a mission to save his parent’ marriage. Jill Tate (Sally Hawkins) has been drifting from her husband, Lloyd (Noah Taylor), a marine biologist who has been in a depressive funk for years. Jill’s old boyfriend, Graham (Paddy Considine), has moved in next-door and begun to insert himself back in her life.
Submarine is going to be something of an acquired taste. It’s almost drowning in whimsy, following the numerous affectations of its main character. Fans will say that the movie borrows liberally from Wes Anderson’s 1998 film, Rushmore; non-fans will just say the movie cops to outright theft. Like Rushmore, this movie follows the coming-of-age trials and tribulations of an intelligent but lonely outcast, a wiseacre beyond his years. What sets this movie apart is that we taken on the point of view of Oliver. He often refers to his life as if it were a movie, noting dramatic moments that would be accompanied by dramatic music, and a solemn moment that would feature a crane shot rising above the ground but if the budget were low he’d settle for a slow zoom out (the actual movie chooses the slow zoom). “I have turned these moments into the Super-8 footage of memory,” he remarks. Oliver is a student of pop-culture, an early Rob Gordon (High Fidelity), and as such blurs the line between reality and the movies. He will routinely point out film tropes ad then indulge in them. We are each the stars of our own stories. In this manner, Submarine separates itself from the idiosyncratic, miniaturized-doll house world of Anderson’s films or the fanciful magic realism of Jean Piere Jeunet (Amelie). For me, the multitude of quirks were appealing instead of insufferable because we were inside the mind of Oliver, seeing his world through his unique worldview. This brings rationale for the whimsy.
Oliver is both an unreliable narrator and a flawed protagonist, a fantastic development. So often coming-of-age tales are mainly autobiographical (this one is based off a book by Joe Dunthorne), and as such the authors usually portray themselves as individuals whose chief fault is that they are naïve. Some life experience will shatter their innocence, usually a girl, and thus they will grow and learn. With Submarine, Oliver gains our sympathy by being clever but then he tests it with the compromises he makes to fit in. He engages in some very mean bullying all to win over Jordana. He’s trying to seem so mature, using advanced vocabulary to provide the illusion of adulthood, but really Oliver can’t comprehend the subtleties of social cues. Just when Jordana appears to be opening up and looking to him for need, that’s when he botches it, acts kind of awful, and then justifies it in his head, like so many of us will do with our mistakes. Still, I never stopped rooting for this kid. I was rooting for him and Jordana to work out. So hard was I yearning for these two loner oddballs to have their happy ending, I think I pulled something (my dignity?). We can see Jordana through Oliver’s infatuated eyes, but then we can also see deeper, see the vulnerability that comes forward that Oliver might be blithe to. Paige (The Sarah Jane Adventures) is a true breakout star and it’s easy to see why Oliver is so infatuated with the charming lass. She’s bruised but approachable, risky but relatable. We can see the connection building between these two, and we want it to continue (maybe that’s my own high school experience speaking out). The youthful romance is sweet and unconventional without seeming like a coming-of-age folly, something that Oliver is supposed to learn some gallant life lesson.
The other plot development, the rocky relationship between Oliver’s parents, is less resonant but it does provide for some fine moments of humor. The new neighbor, Graham, who practices martial arts and believes himself to be a New Age mystic, healing people by sensing their aura colors, just feels like a leftover Napoleon Dynamite. It provides Considine (In America) a springboard to act goofy, which he’s quite good at. The goofiness of the character, however, cuts into the credibility of being a threat to steal away Jill. She may be caught up in this guy’s tiny bubble of fame, but there’s no way she would leave her husband for this doofus, even if her husband has been suffering from depression for years. Oliver’s attempts to reignite his parents’ marriage are plenty hilarious, but they’re also informed with a sweet, if misguided, earnestness. He loves his parents and wants them to stay together. He doesn’t want a ninja mystic for his new dad. Fortunately, Oliver’s attempts to sabotage Graham are kept to a minimum and restrained enough not to resort to cheap slapstick or gross-out humiliation. Maybe it’s the distinctive point of view steering the narrative, but the potential doom of the marriage never feels as portentous and heartbreaking as Oliver’s hope at wooing Jordana.
Debut director Richard Ayoade, who also adapted the screenplay, utilizes every visual trick in the book to tell this story. If the main character weren’t so amusing, and his plight so interesting, all the visual artifice might be exhausting. Instead it keeps the movie lively, crafty, and constantly wonderful to observe. Ayoade’s also quite a talent when it comes to screenwriting. He smoothly captures the very mannered speaking style of Oliver. Then there are just lines that make you laugh out loud from the sheer absurdity of misplaced teenager awe: “He wasn’t even considered hard until the Watkin twins famously stabbed him in the back with compasses. He said nothing; showed no discomfort as his shirt blossomed with blood poppies. His stoicism reminded me of the brave men who died in the First World War.” Ayoade, best known for his starring role on The IT Crowd, will probably soon have a lot more offers to direct features once people get a gander at Submarine. The man’s a natural storyteller and will be snapped up by Hollywood in no time flat.
Finally, the movie’s lead actor needs to be good, better than good, if this movie is going to rise above the din of precocious, coming-of-age cinema. Roberts (Jane Eyre), hollow eyed and just a little “off” looking, handles the material with ease, never letting his performance transform into a series of tics strewn together. Oliver is straight-laced throughout, letting the peculiarities of his imagination and worldview seem ordinary. Roberts doesn’t get overwhelmed by the material and makes a strong impression as a more literate, less rebellious, more anxious, less despondent Welsh version of Holden Caulfield (okay, so maybe that allusion doesn’t hold).
Submarine is an unfailingly entertaining vehicle full of quirk and humor and surprising heart. Oliver’s relationship with Jordana is sweet and mildly touching. I was surprised at how emotionally invested I was in their romance. The movie is also refreshingly low in angst, resorting more to Oliver’s comic anxieties and insecurities. It certainly owes a debt to Anderson’s Rushmore, but Submarine is so good, so thrilling in its creative voice, that it can stand outside the mighty shadow of Anderson and his indomitable influence.
Nate’s Grade: A-