By Don Simpson | June 3, 2011
Director: Richard Ayoade
Writers: Richard Ayoade, Joe Dunthorne
Starring: Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Paddy Considine, Sally Hawkins, Noah Taylor, Lily McCann
Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is the cinematic sibling of Harold Chasen and Max Fischer, the young male protagonists from Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude and Wes Anderson’s Rushmore respectively. A 15-year-old Welsh boy with a geeky penchant for reading the dictionary, Oliver dourly trudges around Swansea outfitted in a black duffel coat with leather briefcase in hand. Solipsistically fancying himself as a fully-formed gentleman with superior tastes and sensibilities, Oliver is the cinematic reincarnation of The Catcher in the Rye’s (Oliver’s favorite modern American novel) protagonist, Holden Caulfield.
Oliver pines over a blissful obsession, despite her eczema, with an iconic first-love character, Jordana (Yasmin Paige), a classmate who bears a remarkable resemblance to Chantal Goya circa Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin Féminin (one of many film’s references to the nouvelle vague). Jordana professes a severe disdain for emotions and romance, preferring a boy who would be willing to allow her to burn his leg hair with matches and co-conspire schemes of petty arson, a role Oliver would not object to playing.
Oliver causes enough of a splash to gain Jordana’s attention when he collaborates with her in bullying a doughy classmate, Zoe (Lily McCann). Though the guilt from this incident seems to haunt Oliver for the remainder of the film, the event nonetheless leads him to meet Jordana under a railway bridge with a Polaroid camera and diary in tow where Jordana promptly orders Oliver to his knees and their romance commences with a first kiss that tastes like “milk, Polo mints and Dunhill International.”
He may start off as Jordana’s pet, but soon Oliver’s pubescent fantasies of having a girlfriend and losing his virginity are realized. Their iconic young love is presented to us by Oliver via soft focus Super 8 memories propagated by fireworks, sunsets, beaches and bicycles. The superficial first two weeks of their relationship gives way to Jordana and Oliver dealing with family issues — Jordana’s mother (Melanie Walters) has been terminally diagnosed with a brain tumor while Oliver’s parents’ (Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor) relationship is on the skids — that drive a wedge between them.
Incessantly monitoring his parents’ sex life by way of their bedroom dimmer switch, Oliver has determined that it has been a long time since his parents have turned the lamp down low, so he takes it upon himself to save his parents’ marriage. First, Oliver plots to pull his mother away from the clutches of her cheesy ex-boyfriend, Graham (Paddy Considine), a cartoonish representation of a New Age-y self help guru who makes a living lecturing about the enlightening benefits of light. Next, Oliver must rescue his father from the oceanic depths of depression, a state of mind that Oliver quickly finds himself slipping into.
Never delving too far into Oliver’s fantastical daydreams, Submarine conveys the teenage wasteland of Wales in the 1980s with a lugubrious backdrop of deteriorating industrial plants, garbage dumps and urban decay. By avoiding the modern teenage rom-com tendency of relying upon overt quirkiness or gross-out jokes to propel the narrative, writer-director Richard Ayoade’s morbidly mundane perspective of pubescence captures the realistic behavior of 15-year olds, specifically the forced pretense of their actions, their incredibly fickle behavior and their all-so-serious dramatizations of seemingly minor events. Despite his hyperactive teenage mind’s knack for self-delusion, Oliver is a precocious and idiosyncratic teen with big, brown puppy-dog eyes and a perspicacious outlook on life.
A series of alternating blue and red, Godard-esque intertitles, separate Ayoade’s feature-length debut into distinct chapters — including a prologue and epilogue — thus establishing a literary structure that serves as a nod to Ayoade’s source: Joe Dunthorne’s novel, Submarine. Ayoade makes one significant alteration to Dunthorne’s novel, staging his film in the 1980s (rather than the 2000s). The production design promotes a reverential nostalgia of bygone teenage years which will probably play most effectively for viewers who were teenagers in the 1980s. (As luck would have it I am part of this target audience, which might be why Submarine was so enjoyable to me.) Teenagers pass handwritten notes in class (rather than text messaging or emailing) and keep diaries (rather than posting their every thought on Facebook); and Ayoade fills the screen with antiquated technologies such as typewriters, Polaroids, VHS tapes, Super 8 film footage, clunky cordless telephones, and audio cassette tapes as if creating an ode to the analogue ways of the not-so-distant past. Erik Wilson’s cinematography, which abides by the same primary-colored palette of Raoul Coutard, and the jump cuts and freeze frames of Chris Dickens and Nick Fenton’s editing also lends Submarine the reverential (and referential) air of a film that is submerged in the past. Somewhat surprisingly, however, Ayoade steers clear of a period-defining soundtrack, opting for a new-yet-timeless soundtrack performed by Arctic Monkeys’ frontman Alex Turner.