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Review: ‘Submarine’ is a Refreshingly Sincere Coming of Age Tale

By  · Published on June 1st, 2011

Richard Ayoade’s Submarine is a much-needed corrective to the twee adolescent indie dramedy. The film maintains many of the recognizable bells and whistles of that exceedingly tired subgenre, but like the potential available in any catalog of clichés, Submarine finds a way to make them work.

Instead of simply presenting us a socially outcast teen protagonist who speaks and thinks like somebody possessing cleverness and insight far beyond his years, Submarine provides specific reasons why its protagonist is so articulate while still giving us plenty of evidence that he is indeed an inexperienced teenager who has a lot to learn. Instead of assembling random visual quirks into a Jared Hess-style landscape in which decades of fashion are collapsed into one oppressively ironic and ahistorical moment, the setting and style of Submarine is (mostly) consistent in presenting a historical moment informed by nostalgia, even if we don’t quite know when that moment is (but we don’t really need to).

In short, Submarine is refreshingly sincere. It’s an all-too-familiar coming of age tale, but the film gives us plenty of reasons to give a damn – its story in particular.

Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is your typical middle-class teen (or, at least, typical of the kind you’d find in films like these): self-involved, emotionally insecure, constantly alienated, and manically obsessive. Perhaps to a fault, Oliver is sensitively attuned to the passing moments of his own life and their profundity. He’s an outcast, but not a loner; a geek who occasionally gets beat up by somebody bigger or is intimidated by somebody more popular, but never one to be too self-defeating. He has school-exclusive male friendships that are as superficial as one would find at such an age, but he cares far less about status than he does the female object of his affection, Jordana (Yasmin Paige).

In a reflexive display of the movie’s awareness of its own genre intervention, Oliver is consistently cognizant of his own coming-of-age (at one point, Oliver imagines his life as a film, which, in a deliberate break of the fourth wall, instructs a poignant zoom-out shot that he narrates). He’s the type of character that we assume will go on to do interesting things in college and must simply survive high school before entering a world in which he can finally feel comfortable, but Submarine deftly keeps itself occupied only with the “present moment” and the immediate import of the events Oliver endures in his adolescent life.

Like many teenagers, he condescendingly pities his boring parents, but unlike many teenagers, he’s as intrusively preoccupied with their private lives as a paranoid parent would be for their own young adult. He knows that his mother Jill (Sally Hawkins) and his father Lloyd (Noah Taylor) haven’t had sex for seven months because their light dimmer has been all the way up. He suspects that the mullet-donning, unjustifiably confident, karate-practicing neighbor, Graham (Paddy Considine) might have something to do with this.

In the film’s three acts (complete with a novelistic prologue and epilogue), Oliver experiences the trials, travails, and stupefying awkwardness of an adolescent relationship while also dealing fully (and irresponsibly) with the crippling reality of two parents drifting painfully apart. Submarine maintains a humor throughout that prevents it from being reduced to also-ran self-seriousness, while at the same time the film takes itself seriously enough that the drama and humor become genuinely intermingled rather than mired in quirk. A true dramedy, Submarine is more Alexander Payne than Wes Anderson.

Submarine rises from what could have been a crutch of familiar plotting with its thoroughly realized and complex characters as well as with its strong performances all around. Hawkins’s emotionally absent Jill isn’t a “bad mother” type, but instead forms into a complex woman dealing with longings over what her life could have been while attempting to experience a private moment for herself away from her frighteningly invasive son. Considine’s Graham comes dangerously close to full-on caricature, but the talented actor evens out a thinly over-the-top role by grounding Graham’s absurdity time and again. By contrast, Taylor’s restraint in his approach to the quiet and reserved Lloyd tells us more about his character than words ever could. Paige’s Jordana takes us through all the ups and downs of adolescence from a female perspective without the benefit of narration, giving the character room for the audience to read into her experiences far beyond what she says out loud.

Finally, Roberts strikes the delicate balance for Oliver Tate with impressive precision, giving his supposed insight enough naivety that he can simultaneously be convincingly articulate and thoughtful about his adolescent experience while having to embarrassingly, hilariously, and woefully experience each moment of it (one of my favorite scenes is when, in a terrible misunderstanding of how teenage seduction works, he sits Jordana down to dinner, raises a glass of box wine and says, “Here’s to a wonderful night of lovemaking”). It’s refreshing to see a coming-of-age story where the lead character convincingly and compellingly comes-of-age.

Ayoade (perhaps best-known as Moss on the British sitcom The IT Crowd) shows great confidence and promise as a director. He has an attuned visual flair to go with his impressive character growth and his direction of actors. He’s clearly a cinephile, as his debut feature film gives shout-outs to the expected (Ashby’s Harold and Maude, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows) and the unexpected (Oliver’s room is packed with posters of Melville films, he takes Jordana to see Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, the intertitles resemble Godard’s 60s color films, and there is a vague though repeated reference to Roeg’s Don’t Look Now). What these references add to the film exactly is uncertain, but it’s clear that Ayoade has developed a visual sensibility from some of cinema’s masters in addition to his keen sense of comedic timing. Like any young filmmaker, he certainly needs to exercise stylistic discipline – but as far as the coming-of-age film goes, Ayoade shows far more promise than any of the ad nauseum offspring of Wes Anderson and J.D. Salinger. He injects promise into an independent film genre that, up to this point, was all but dead, and that in of itself is an accomplishment.

The Upside: A compelling and clever coming-of-age tale rounded out with solid characters portrayed by talented actors, Submarine never falls victim to the coming-of-age film’s clichés and pitfalls.

The Downside: It’s more of a much-needed corrective to a tired genre than a truly great film.

On the Side: The film is based on the novel of the same name by Joe Dunthorne. Maybe somewhere in there is an explanation of the title, because I don’t remember any specific motivation for it in the film.
Grade: B