A coming of age film, it would seem, according to the quickly hardening 21st-century mold, involves a precocious outsider who's able to tell his or her story with all fluidity and style of a novelist. All of this backed up by a perfectly modulated soundtrack of indie rock or nuggets plucked with the utmost discretion from the rock and roll past.
Submarine makes no bones about being anything else but a coming of age film. The fact is practically announced in a title card of sorts in which protagonist Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) proclaims that what follows is his biopic. He also reminds his American audience of the existence of Wales, notes a couple of famous countrymen and women - Tom Jones, of course; Katherine Zeta Jones - and thanks us for never invading his country. Later, somewhere between first heartbreak and post-hearbreak, young Oliver even uses the term, saying, "I'm not sure if I've come of age." What is surprising about Submarine is how disctinctly first time writer/director Richard Ayoade works within the limiting genre, adapting the novel of Joe Dunthorne.
Oliver is seen with a nearly catatonic expression on his face, sitting in a classroom, while in voice-over, he professes a fondness for taking himself to a happier place, as imagining the unbearable grief on the part of his schoomates at his untimely passing. This teenage morbidity is, of course, nothing new. But as is the satisfying pattern in Submarine, what's so funny or affecting is how imaginatively the tune is played. Also, the degree to which it is taken in this particular case: there is not only uncontrollable weeping on the part of comely schoogirls, but an entire nation is thrown into mourning; then a resurrection - Oliver removes the hood from a cloak and calmy tells shocked onlookers to ask no questions, but assume that his powers are greater than ever.
It's not all schoolroom fantasy and indifference for Oliver. There is a couple of rows to his left, perched in the back row in one of his classes, one Jordana Bevin (Yasmin Page), the object of his affection and target of his incipient lust. Oliver is the sort of young man who seems to think no problem beyond a carefully drawn list or crisply worded note. Losing his virginity looms large at the top of a mental version of the former. Ms. Paige, with her broad cheekbones and bobbed hair looks a younger, attenuated Dawn French. The only fault Oliver can find with her is a bit of eczema about the neck and hands. He doesn't seem concerned about her slight inclination toward pyromania.
Oliver is able to make inroads with Jordana when they find not a common enemy, but a common victim. This a heavy-set girl at their school, Zoe. He's surprised to see the usually detached Jordana amused by a group of kids playing keep away with Zoe's bag. Lloyd doesn't approve, but states he "can't let principles stand in the way of progress." The episode ends, predictably, in Zoe's humiliation. It's bad enough that she leaves school. A guilt-ridden Lloyd, who we later learn once kissed Zoe outside a school dance, writes her a couple of self-help pamphlets. Jordana somehow intercepts the pamphlets and blackmails Oliver. But it's an unexpectedly pleasant form of blackmail which entails the two kissing beneath a bridge while Jordan takes Polaroids. This not to hurt Oliver or further antagonize Zoe, but to get back at her ex. So go the bitter intrigues of secondary school.
Beneath all its contrivance and comedy, the occasional sheen of preciousness, Submarine gets a lot right about adolescence. There is Oliver, obviously no stranger to being the butt of jokes, all too quick to join the harassment of Zoe. With the seemingly aloof Jordana, we find out that her toughness is, as is so often the case with teenagers, just a desperate form of bravado, an armor for that tender, developing ego. It's a tough, decidedly un-politically-correct world, where betraying real emotion of any kind is considered "gay."
When Oliver defends Jordana's honor while getting beaten up by her considerably larger ex-boyfriend, he doesn't completely win hear heart. But the thaw begins. Two weeks of courtship ensues. Despite Jordana's distaste for any place or ritual that bears the slightest whiff of romance, this doesn't stop Mr. Ayoade from indulging in some swoony scenes of Oliver and Jordana careening and cavorting about Swansea in novelty sunglasses, sparklers issuing sparks from their bicycles, fireworks exploding their approval in the sky. Nor does it stop a film-within-the film Super 8 made by Oliver, documenting the heady fortnight.
The indulgence is understandable, given how good the grainy Super 8 and the film as a whole are made to look. Ayoade and his cinematographer Erik Wilson have not done anything original here, but they have demonstrated some skill in the dreamy, consistent look of Submarine, a sort of 1970's cinematic sfumato. This may have something to do with the natural light utilised throughout, both for the interior and exterior shooting. It also may have something to do with the climate and muted sunshine of Swansea. But mainly, Ayoade, who is open in his admiration for American films of the late-60's and 1970's, seems to know what he wanted and executed it very well.
Aside from winning Jordana and losing his virginity, the other major issue in Oliver's life is the frigid state of his parents' marriage. Dad (Noah Taylor) is a depressive marine biologist. It's more than understandable why Oliver's uptight mother (Sally Hawkins) is dissatisfied and looking toward their neighbor and her former flame, Graham Purvis, a new age motivational speaker. Mr. Taylor is all too effective as the hangdog Lloyd Tate. His beard and pallor make him look much more than his 41 years; he looks positively unwell. But at least the sad Lloyd gets enough room in the story to emerge into three dimensions. The same can't be said for Jill Tate, whom Sally Hawkins rightly referred to in an interivew as "this ball of tension." Working within the narrow confines of the decent but uptight Jill set out by Mr. Ayoade's script, Ms. Hawkins performance is a rather twitchy one and not one of her best.
Providing comedy and pathos in equal measure is the ever-versatile Paddy Cosidine as Graham Purvis. Cosidine sports what I quickly starting referring to as "the cosmic mullet." Typical of Grahams's wisdom, that a bored Jill receives while sitting in on one of his lectures: "Light is probably the most important gift we have from the universe. And if you ask any intelligent bloody writer...like Professor Hawking or anybody of that ilk...he could talk to you, for...I don't know....a year, just about bloody light. We don't want to be in the dark, being fiddled with." Profound stuff, indeed. With his rainbow emblazoned van and leather pants, he's a caricature waiting to happen, but Cosidine plays the "ninja," (as Oliver refers to him; during one brief scene, we see Graham's girlfriend go down on him while he indulges in a few martial arts moves with his hands) with admirable sincerity.
|Paddy Considine elucidating the "Purvis Method"|
Numerous comparisons have been made between Submarine and another stylised coming-of-ager, Rushmore, but they seem just a bit facile and short-sighted. Beyond a similarity in framing to Wes Anderson's first feature, Submarine would seem to owe a far stronger debt to Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude. Craig Roberts could actually be a Welsh cousin to But Cort's Harold. They both have the same dark bowls of hair with bangs swept to one side, a tendency to dilate their equally dark eyes. There is also a penchant on the part of both young men for black clothing.
It's not surprising that Richard Ayoade lists Harold and Maude as a major influence among those films of the late-60's and 1970's for which he professes such admiration. He manages to capture both the seductive look of the period along with the undertow of melancholy that often accompanied those films. It will be interesting to see if he's the sort of artist who can take his influences and run with them. Submarine is a deliberate but impressive first step.
Like Harold and Maude, the action in Submarine is also unified by its music, a set of songs from a singer/songwriter. With the former, it was obviously the memorable tunes of Cat Stevens. Submarine has its evocative new but old-sounding ballads provided by Arctic Monkeys' front man Alex Turner. The songs are introduced by way of a mix tape that Oliver receives from his father when Lloyd Tate finds out his son is dating. Typical of the somber elder Tate, the tape includes not only love songs, but selections for the inevitable heartbreak as well. When he and Jordana are on the outs, Oliver flips the tape to the side entitled "despondency." This is not Mr. Turner's first experience unifying present music with past sounds. Aside from his very successful work with the Arctic Monkeys, he collaborated in 2007 with Miles Kane and James Ford on The Last Shadow Puppets, songs that demonstrate not only the influence of Scott Walker and early Bowie, but marry surprisingly well Mr. Turner's gatling gun delivery with the spaghetti-western-type sweep of Ennio Morricone on certain of the tunes.
Here's an example of Turner's work for Submarine, as well as some lovely images of he cavorting Oliver and Jordana.