Submarine (Director: Richard Ayoade): The debut feature from actor-comedian Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd) wears its heart, and its influences, on its sleeve. Wes Anderson looms large, and behind him, Hal Ashby and Francois Truffaut, but Submarine still manages to be original, mostly due to the irrepressible charm and formal playfulness of its director.
Based on Joe Dunthorne’s novel, the film is the record of Oliver Tate’s painful coming-of-age. Neither cool nor an outcast at school, Oliver is infatuated with Jordana Bevan, a girl who seems just a bit tougher and cooler than him. After she uses him to get revenge on her cheating ex, they are more or less in a relationship, and Oliver strives to be a good boyfriend while still remaining incredibly self-absorbed. His parents haven’t had sex in months, and Oliver is certain that his mother is carrying on an affair with their neighbour, a spiky-haired “mystic” with a pimped-out van. When he discovers that said mystic is actually an old boyfriend of his mother’s, he becomes obsessed with wrecking any chance of infidelity. His father, a depressive marine biologist, seems too passive to care what’s going on. Oliver considers bringing Jordana into his plans, but when he finds out her mother is suffering from a potentially-fatal brain tumour, he retreats into his own world, leaving his girlfriend to deal with her own horrors.
Did I mention that this is a comedy? Ayoade is able to use a light touch to ensure that this potentially dark material doesn’t overwhelm the audience. Oliver, even at his most selfish, is never unlikeable. Instead, he reminds many of us what it was like to be caught between childhood and adulthood, realizing that our parents are fallible and that we are neither as safe nor as important as we once thought. In that sense, it is a bit like Rushmore, to which it’s being endlessly compared. But Oliver is far less self-assured than Max Fischer, at least outwardly. He admits that he’s trying on identities. The film itself is far scruffier than Rushmore, too, and Ayoade himself seems to be trying on identities as a director. There are sections of the film where he tries out different styles, and he lets the audience know that he’s experimenting. There is a lovely montage of Super 8 footage of Oliver and Jordana falling in love and it’s presented by Oliver as prepackaged nostalgia, which doesn’t make it any less gorgeous or romantic.
Another difference from the films of Wes Anderson is Ayoade’s very careful use of music. There are only a few songs in the film, all by the wonderful Alex Turner (frontman for Arctic Monkeys), and they’re only used for moments of dramatic importance. Even here, Ayoade can’t help being self-conscious. The songs are on two sides of a mixtape Oliver’s father gives him. One side is for the budding of the relationship, the other for its dissolution. I actually made a similar mixtape myself in my younger years.
The performances are all wonderful, especially young Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige as Oliver and Jordana. Paddy Considine has fun playing Graham the rock ‘n roll mystic, and Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor are appropriately low-key as Oliver’s jaded parents.
The film isn’t perfect. The pace sags a bit in the middle, and Ayoade’s direction can be a bit mannered at times. The Welsh accents may be a bit difficult for some audiences to decipher in a few places. As well, by the end, Oliver’s parents’ marital problems seem to have magically disappeared. But for a first film, Submarine manages to be funny, romantic, sweet and gorgeous to look at too. I’m looking forward very much to seeing Ayoade bury his influences a little deeper in his next film as he gains in confidence.
Here is the Q&A with director Richard Ayoade from after the screening.