Monday, September 12, 2011

New Release Review: Submarine (Richard Ayoade, 2011)

There are a few staple stories in the indie comedy/drama catalogue – the coming-of-age tale is a common one that immediately comes to mind. The story of a disillusioned individual on the cusp of middle age, still single and lacking direction, is another. Truthfully, I have bit of a soft spot for these sorts of films. They are in my element, so to speak. Especially if the protagonist is male, I often find myself relating to the character, recognizing similar situations from my teenage years, or seeing personal traits in an older character and wondering where my own life will lead.

Mike Mills’ Beginners was one recent example, and Submarine, the anticipated directorial debut from Richard Ayoade (whom many will know as Moss from The IT Crowd), is another. Ayoade’s adaptation of Joe Dunthorne’s 2008 novel wasn’t quite as uproariously funny as I expected, but there is no denying that Submarine is frequently amusing. It is a sweet film littered with moments of effortless enlightenment that proves rewarding in a number of charming and poignant ways, and proves that Ayoade is a director to watch after his impressively assured and visionary work.

Set in Wales in the mid 1980's - and I'm declaring this based on a reference to Crocodile Dundee - Submarine opens with an elaborate fantasy montage, with our central protagonist, Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), envisioning the reactions of his family and classmates to his death. He is partially convinced that he is an unrivalled genius, widely admired by his classmates, attractive to the girls and respected by the boys. In truth, Oliver, though smart and intuitive, is odd, pretentious, socially alienated and a regular target of taunting and bullying. He reveals his numerous attempts to overcome his early adolescent disillusionment and confusion. 

The first part is titled 'Jordana Bevin' and is centred on Oliver's attempts to woo his classmate crush, Jordana (Yasmin Paige). As a mysterious, self-possessed pyromaniac, Oliver establishes that he would need to break some personal rules to woo her. Regrettably, he goes to the lengths of bullying an overweight classmate to impress her. The two social outcasts, though Jordana is 'popular', are easily distinguishable by their coats (his is a buttoned trench coat, hers bright red) and meet one day after school. The polaroids she takes of them kissing are used to make an ex-boyfriend jealous, which results in Oliver finding himself at the sore end of a beating. On the positive, he wins over Jordana following the ordeal and establishes her as his first girlfriend, and later the breaker of his virginity.

The second part is titled 'Graham Purvis' and is centred more on Oliver's suspicions that his mother, Jill (Sally Hawkins), is having an affair with old flame, new-age guru and neighbour, Graham (Paddy Considine, sporting long hair and leather pants). Oliver has been monitoring his parent's troubled sex habits through the setting on their light dimmer and is growing equally concerned about his father, Lloyd (Noah Taylor), a reclusive marine biologist prone to depression. Oliver becomes obsessed with spying on his mother and convincing his parents to stay together. He even ignores his commitments to Jordana (whose own mother is in the hospital dying from a fatal brain tumour) in his attempts to salvage their marriage. 

Due to some instances of overwriting the supports do encroach the boundaries of caricature and because of a high prevalence of films of this nature, there is a constant threat of familiarity and inevitability that does test a viewer’s attention. But, the inventiveness with style, the use of natural light, the mood generated by the seaside location, the uniqueness of the protagonist and this infectious self-assuredness, successfully relays that there are wholeheartedly original traits below the surface. I was impressed by the choice of soundtrack and score too, which, following the tradition of the genre, is unique and funky. Andrew Hewitt composed the score and I thought it fit well, with five songs also contributed by Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys. 

There are times when it takes some desperate leaps to be clever, flaunting some stylistic devices and nods to the work of Francois Truffaut (and especially The 400 Blows), The Catcher in the Rye and Rushmore. The use of titles to divide the film’s segments, the occasional grainy Polaroid-style photography, the alternate reality fantasies and the self-aware narration are just some, but it was never distracting. Narration can be a hit-and-miss device, but I thought Craig Robert’s voice was well served for voice-over, but some other devices, like when Lloyd gives Oliver a mix-tape of love and break-up songs, which are then used at appropriate parts of the film, felt forced. 

Despite Oliver’s bizarre personality and incompetent social methods there is a sense of grounded relativity and likability about his character. Jordana is equally acceptable and likable as the straight-to-the-point, no-nonsense girl that few would dare mess with, but with innocence beneath the surface. The naturalistic performances from Roberts and Paige are excellent. The confusions that surround this middle teenage period - an intermediary between youth and adulthood where conflicted ideals and suppressed emotions about love and sex come to the fore – are handled sensitively and intelligently by Ayoade and convincingly by the cast. This is a film that is about style and character, and the each of the characters are effectively developed and strike the right chord. Even Oliver's obnoxious classmate antagonist - who also seems to be his friend - is perfect. Similarly, Paddy Considine (Dead Man’s Shoes and Hot Fuzz), Sally Hawkins (Happy Go Lucky) and Noah Taylor (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) are all well cast and bring a nuanced experience to their roles. 

While I didn’t find Submarine particularly groundbreaking, or overly memorable, I did become immersed in and thoroughly enjoy this sweet, heartfelt and purposeful coming-of-age story. With strong performances and a unique vision from a talented and promising director, Submarine is well worth seeking out.

My Rating: ★★★1/2 (B-)


  1. I am one of those who know Richard Ayoade from the I.T Crowd. He is, in a word, awesome! I can't wait to see this!

  2. I feel that the protagonist of Submarine was somewhat influenced by Moss, even though the screenplay was based on a novel. He is so awesome in that show, and his direction here is impressive. I'll see his next film, for sure. Well worth a look at the cinema. Something tells me you will love it!

  3. As you know I loved this movie as opposed to Rushmore, which didn't work at all for me. I'm not quite sure what makes the difference. Maybe that there's some seriousness underlying all of it. Or the fact that I'm a sucker for anything brittish.

    And the music was just wonderful!

  4. Sounds like my kind of thing. I too am prone to liking these kind of films.

  5. I thought the first half of Submarine was stronger, for me kind of lost its way midway. Will probably gain a cult "tumblr" following like Ghost World or Eagle vs. shark did for all the little details in the background ( :

    Seem to be a few of these type of coming-of-age movies doing the rounds in 2011, "the art of getting by" was good, if you haven't got to it yet, I don't get the hate on rottentomatoes...

  6. @ Jessica - I enjoyed Rushmore but it's not amongst my favourite Wes Anderson films. I thought the music was great, but I was disappointed I wasn't left with a more memorable experience.

    @ Vik - It's worth a look. A funny and heartfelt coming-of-age drama.

    @ Chris - Yeah, it reminded me of a lot of films whch - but still seemed like it was fresh-ish. I didn't even think about Ghost World. That was a great film. I think it will generate a cult following.

    I agree, I thought it lost its way for a while there too. After building the dual crises in his life, the payoffs were a little bit of a letdown. I haven't heard of 'The Art of Getting By'. It hasn't got a release here in Australia at least.

  7. I personally love when comedic actors do serious roles. I think it benefits both the audience and the actor. Just think if robin williams never did a serious role. As somebody who loves everything comedy, I feel like a good serious role deepens my love for that actor and impresses me when they can nail both. Also it goes the other way to. Good dramatic actors doing hilarious comedic characters... Tom Cruise... Boom