Tuesday, December 27, 2011

There Are No Literal Submarines in "Submarine"

Well, I finally found a bildungsroman that I liked. I actually found a couple this year, including the terrific "Terri," and "Hanna." However, I want to spend this post singing the praises of Richard Ayoade's "Submarine," a British coming-of-age tale that does a lot of familiar things very, very well. Ayoade is a comedic actor, probably best known for playing Moss in the UK sitcom, "The IT Crowd." I knew he was also a director, who contributed a fun episode to the last season of "Community," but I didn't suspect that he had this movie in him.

Craig Roberts plays Oliver Tate, a fifteen-year-old with high ambitions and a very high opinion of himself. He puts on a front of great sophistication and intelligence. In actuality, he's deeply insecure, and not too sure of his place in the world. He falls for a girl named Jordana (Yasmin Paige), and schemes to become her boyfriend. At the same time, he's all too aware that his parents, Jill (Sally Hawkins) and Lloyd (Noah Taylor), are hitting a rough patch in thier relationship. His mother is spending an awful lot of time with a man from her past named Graham (Paddy Considine), who Oliver takes it upon himself to stalk. And when he and Jordana do get together, he discovers that he isn't ready for all that entails.

The immediate urge when analyzing "Submarine" is to compare it to Wes Anderson's films, specifically "Rushmore." You have a pretentious teenage hero who adopts countless pseudo-intellectual tics, there's deadpan humor galore, and it's covering similar dramatic ground in regards to love and family problems. There is an unmistakable resemblance, but Anderson never would have made a film like "Submarine." Yes, Oliver is quirky to a fault, but yet there's a wonderful cohesion to all of his pretentions and predilections, and you can tell where they came from. Oliver's world is also much less stylized, despite some dream sequences and recurring motifs, and feels much closer to the real world. Developments are more organic and play out in less fantastic ways. Oliver may be trying to be a Wes Anderson type of hero, but the film universe he's in doesn't work by the kind of logic that allows him to keep up the act for very long.

The film is especially strong in its portrayal of a very imperfect teenage romance, with all the ups and downs and doubts and discoveries that too many movies gloss over. The young actors are both great, but I especially liked Yasmin Paige as Jordana. Oliver romanticizes her as an ultra-cool, unsentimental rebel, but she turns out to be a real girl with hidden vulnerabilities. Without spending all that much time on her side of the story, Ayoade and Paige get across the notion that Jordana is just as smart and just as much of a kook as Oliver is, but more importantly she's also using her own facade to cover up major troubles. What we see of Oliver's relationships with his parents also suggests a lot without saying too much. There are obvious gimmicks and pat little bits of clever dialogue that could have easily come off as very manufactured, but nothing feels insincere thanks to the performances.

Ayoade also has a welcome facility with visual composition. "Submarine" has nothing to do with literal submarines, and the title is never spoken aloud in the dialogue. However, the metaphor is easy to grasp. Oliver's father is a depressed marine biologist and there are many allusions to oceans, nautical activity, and marine life throughou the film, sometimes just subtle imagery tucked into the corners of the frame. It's never so much that it seems out of place - Oliver and Jordana go to the beach, Oliver has fond memories of his father's science lectures, and there are occasional marine-themed items of decor around the Tate house, which are to be expected, considering Lloyd Tate's profession. It's just enough to be present, without intruding on the story.

I don't expect that "Submarine" will gain much mainstream love, because it has a very particular kind of humor that won't rub everyone the right way, and it's too easy to confuse the attitude of the neurotic young protagonist with the attitude of the film, which is actually much gentler. But I came away from it very pleased and feeling nostalgic for my own weirdo teenage years, when I though that the world turned by certain theories I had worked out - but of course they mostly didn't hold up.

For all you other weirdos out there - and I know you're out there - I think this one's for you.

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