15-year-old Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) has two objectives: To lose his virginity before his next birthday, and to extinguish the flame between his mother and an ex-lover who has resurfaced in her life.
MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: An idiosyncratic tone, one that is both funny and affecting, is far easier to sparingly strike than it is too maintain for the length of a feature. To his not inconsiderable credit, British filmmaker Richard Ayoade keeps a steady, if stylised, hand all the way through his debut feature. Submarine gives you much to laugh at, but you’re never entirely removed from the characters, who inhabit the drab Welsh city of Swansea like bit players in a novel that hasn’t got underway.
The weight of ironic modernism hangs over the work, adapted by Ayoade from Joe Dunthorne’s novel, with the obligatory insert shots that bring to life daft bursts of narration, or comments about the kind of shot – tracking or crane – that a key moment deserves, with the opposite eventuating. Much of this stems from 15-year-old protagonist Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), a wide-eyed schoolboy with just enough intelligence to have ideas that appear sound and are, of course, ruinous. He’s too self-obsessed to understand his comeuppance, much to the film’s delight.
A heavy thinker in a duffel coat – Ayoade shoots his star from odd angles so that his large, unanchored pupils make his face appear positively loopy – Oliver is a get along figure with a Welsh lilt who gets caught up in the pursuit of his crush, the despotic Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige), who likes a spot of bullying and singeing the leg hair of her potential suitors with a lit match, and defending the integrity of his parents’ marriage, despite their own growing indifference. Ayoade lavishes us in oddball details that don’t overstay their welcome: a graph Oliver keeps charting his parents’ sexual activity, or his fantasy about his death unleashing scenes of mass grief complete with media coverage.
The genetics to their screen son might not match, but Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins do sterling supporting work as Lloyd and Jill Tate, a depressed marine biologist and uptight council clerk. (A string of pearls and a sensible cardigan are obviously Kryptonite to Hawkins’ renowned bubbliness.) The return of the latter’s one-time boyfriend, budding new age guru Graham (Paddy Considine), tempts Jill, and Ayoade cannily treats the most idiotic concept in the film, Graham’s 'philosophy", with the straightest eye.
Such unexpected choices nearly always prevail, but there are an awful lot of them. Comparisons will abound to Wes Anderson’s breakthrough, 1998’s Rushmore, thanks to the vaguely vintage era that encourages solipsism and the intricate production design, but Anderson’s 15-year-old, Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), lusts for the imagined glory of the adult world, whereas Oliver has his eyes firmly on the real adolescent prize of losing his virginity and surviving the schoolyard. His goals, though not his means, are all too familiar, but thankfully Submarine has little interest in being a teen comedy. Oliver’s deadpan, breakneck conversation – he speaks as if he’s worried both about what he is saying and what he isn’t saying – takes the film into eccentric tangents that are more farce than fizz.
If anything, it’s a coming of age piece that, despite the present tense, has the detachment of memoir instead of the immediacy of the teenage now. Oliver makes bad decisions, including abandoning Jordana in her moment of need and contemplating if he should kill her dog as a kind of emotional pick-me-up, yet the picture makes clear that not only does he have a heart, it’s in the right place. The entertaining clutter never obscures the simple dynamics. If Ayoade can do the same with an adult as his focus, his considerable promise might approach greatness.