Written & Directed by Richard Ayoade
Starring: Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, and Sally Hawkins
MPAA: R – For Language And Some Sexual Content]
A film can be easily redeemed from having an unoriginal or maybe nonexistent plot or concept so long as it has one or more of the following things: Personality, charm, characters to root for, perhaps a twinge of style, and an emotional honesty that any audience can relate to. And Submarine is that film, and it has all of the things that I listed.
When I first saw Submarine after renting it from Netflix/Qwikster/Whatever-The-Hell-It’s-Supposed-To-Be-Now-Because-They-Keep-Changing-Their-Minds-‘Bout-It, I thought to myself, “Gee, that was a wonderful time, but I don’t think there’s much substance in the film for a review.” A few days have passed since my first viewing and you’ll be surprised to learn that my appreciation for Richard Ayoade’s directorial debut has grown significantly.
It’s not a particularly deep experience, nor does it reach the emotional highs of superior coming-of-age dramedies; but it knows what it wants to set out doing, and succeeds greatly, nailing a tone that balances comedy without being too clever, drama without being too forced, and nostalgia without feeling too fetishistic about adolescence and I swear to Christ I did not mean for that to sound pedophiliac when I typed it down.
A little behind-the-scenes backstory for you: The writer and first-time feature director of the film Richard Ayoade, some of you may recognize from the British comedy show The IT Crowd, as he played one of the main characters, Maurice Moss. He’d directed some videos before, but had an idea in mind for a coming-of-age dramedy based on a novel of the same title by Joe Dunthorne. The script for it somehow got into the hands of none other than Ben Stiller, who saw a lot of potential in the project and acted as producer, even going to such lengths as providing an incredibly small, but still rather noticeable 1-second cameo.
tl;dr – If there’s one person to thank for the existence of this movie, it’s Ben Stiller, I guess.
Submarine follows a few days in the life of Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts, who I hope to God gets more roles after his great work here), an intellectual 15-year-old too smart to get laid, but constantly thinks about the adventures of love-making in the 1980s. Things heat up when the school’s pyromaniac Jordana (Yasmin Paige, showing us that not being the skinniest young woman in the bunch doesn’t stop you from being cute and/or charming) uses Oliver as part of a rumor to get her ex-boyfriend to bugger off elsewhere. Oliver, still hoping for a wonderful evening of love-making, persist to Jordana that perhaps they can actually date, rather than just say they dated. So, the two of them begin a relationship.
All is still not right in Oliver’s life, however, as he begins to notice a disconnect in his parents’ relationship and a potential affair between his mother and a pretentious mystic named Graham who creates self-help video cassettes that talk about seeing auras and shit of that nature. It is up to Oliver to save his parents’ relationship, while still maintaining one of his own with Jordana.
Now, if there’s one clear knock that Submarine has inherently going against it, it is that director Richard Ayoade, despite his talent, owes a lot to Wes Anderson, and more specifically, Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. Both films are about socially awkward adolescent protagonists too smart for their own good dealing with an unusual relationship. However, I think it’s unfair to say that Submarine completely mimics Rushmore. For one thing, most of the characters still have their own personalities that differ greatly from that of Rushmore. Also, while Anderson’s style is distinctly American, Richard Ayoade makes great use of the country of Wales, creating a film that employs the whimsy of Wes Anderson (and Michel Gondry, for that matter) while infusing it with a slightly bleak color palette and beautifully melancholic cinematography.
It also helps that the film’s hero, Oliver Tate, is incredibly likeable in his own way. This isn’t so much in part of the clever writing, which is still clever and rather funny, but it’s more to do with the performance from Craig Roberts, who does a great job at immersing the viewer into the mindset of Oliver thanks to naturalistic facial expressions, dry comedic timing, and wonderfully executed narration. The relationship he develops with Jordana is rather strange (It is laid upon specific ground rules such as never giving each other pet names, never exhibiting any emotions towards another except for laughter and sexual intercourse, etc.), but evokes a rare ring of adolescent truth that most films don’t have.
Too often I have to sit through banal exercises in plastic characterizations in today’s American teenage films. Even the good ones, like Easy A, aren’t the most truthful representations of what it’s like to be a teenager. Despite taking place in Wales during the 1980s, Submarine was able to relate with me, an American 17-year-old in 2011.
The thing that truly makes the film is the tone. Ayoade nails that right mix of comedy and drama. The writing is funny without being too over-the-top, the drama is poignant without hitting the tears too hard, the nostalgia isn’t forced, the script is clever enough so it never becomes annoyingly pompous, and the style is visually enticing and interesting, but never becomes too self-indulgent. The film’s visual flair actually reminded me a lot of a Beatles song, which may sound strange at first, but considering the setting, the grayish color palette that still contains a light-hearted tone, and the fact that Craig Roberts looks an awful lot like a younger, heavier John Lennon, it’s not hard to really see.
The film also contains some nice little references to French New Wave cinema (Almost every scene taking place in a beach evoked the ending to The 400 Blows), and while these are the only references that I’d say are heavy-handed, it’s still nice to see something referenced that isn’t Star Wars or some other type of geek-bait.
It should also be noted that the music is exceptional, and contains some original songs from Arctic Monkeys leading man Alex Turner. The song that plays over the credits, in particular, was so infectious that it got stuck in my head.
If there’s one negative thing I can say about the film, it’s that the scenes involving Oliver saving his parents’ marriage are weaker than those of his coming-of-age. It’s not that their bad. Hell, there was one scene involving karate punches that had me laughing my ass off, but it’s noticeably not as focused or emotionally resonating as the scenes with Oliver and Jordana finding romance in the most unromantic of places.
The ending is also a little too ambiguous for its own good. I know, indie filmmakers like to leave things open-to-interpretations as a little nod to the audience, but it shouldn’t be there to sacrifice a sense of closure that is much needed in any ending.
One thing I will defend about the film that some people are knocking off is that Submarine isn’t a particularly deep film, nor does it offer up any new insights in the realm of the coming-of-age story. But that’s kind of like comparing it to something like The Tree of Life. Sure The Tree of Life was a much more emotionally powerful film, but that was because it was an ambitious odyssey through all of life that really went for the big, heartbrekaing moments.
Submarine knows what it wants to do and does it successfully. It captures the small details of the life of its young protagonist in an honest, yet stylish and funny way.
Final Verdict: Judging it for what it is, Submarine is executed wonderfully. It evokes many other coming-of-age stories that had inspired it, while still standing on its own as a good movie with likeable characters, good performances, an irresistible charm, an appealing style, and some funny jokes thrown here and there. It’s not going to change your world, but if what you want is a sweet and honest film, this is an instant recommendation.
That is all.
See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to watch some of The Mighty Boosh. I’M OLD GREEEEEEEEEEEGG!!