Most young male protagonists, from Holden Caulfield to Max Fischer, believe their lives are worthy of attention. This is the case for Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), the Welsh teen at the heart of Submarine. “I suppose it’s a bit of an affectation, but I often wish there was a film crew following my every move,” he says.
As he imagines it, that crew might capture a life divided between two grand preoccupations: wooing his rough-around-the-edges crush, Jordana (Yasmin Paige), and rekindling the romance between his parents, Jill (Sally Hawkins) and Lloyd (Noah Taylor), a task made harder by the reappearance of his mother’s first love, Graham (a mulleted Paddy Considine).
As neat as these storylines might seem on the surface, however, Richard Ayoade’s film runs into some trouble deciding on a format. A mishmash of structures, Submarine is divided into three “chapters,” suggesting a book. At one point, Oliver imagines that his life is the subject of a news report, with a broadcaster live on the scene interviewing his family and classmates. At another, he describes a two-week period as being committed to the “Super 8 of memory,” segueing into a montage of grainy footage, and in yet another, he uses language that conjures lush, cinematic, feature film moments. We’re lucky that the film, adapted from the novel by Joe Dunthorne, takes place in the 1980s, or we’d also have to sit through Oliver’s Facebook posts and FaceTime chats.
The film takes care to point out all of these structural quirks whenever it gets a chance. The chapter titles are splashed across bold-colored screens in unadorned capital letters. (It seems that Rushmore has influenced the movie’s visual style as well as its protagonist’s sensibility.) And when Oliver first imagines a crane shot moving up and out to showcase a big moment, he reconsiders, figuring that all he’d be able to afford would be a zoom out — a thought that’s delivered as the camera, in fact, zooms out.
If this delivery seems gimmicky, and if Oliver’s coming-of-age foibles seem familiar, it is true that his life is worthy of examination. Not because he’s exceptional, but because his voice is highly entertaining. Too intelligent for his own good, Oliver exhibits a shrewd balance of self-deprecation and self-aggrandizement. When he first identifies his love interest, his voiceover describes Jordana as “moderately unpopular, which makes a romance between the two of us more likely,” adding that dating her will help his cred, “which is high, but could be higher.”
It’s this deadpan humor that accounts for most of the movie’s charm. Submarine is a rare look at adolescence that contains not a shred of sentimentality. This is most plainly revealed in Jordana. Not nearly an idealized first love, she’s actually pretty awful. Oliver first catches her eye by bullying an overweight classmate, and their subsequent dates involve setting off fireworks and burning his leg hair.
It’s not surprising that Oliver’s romance is less than sweeping, given that it’s starting up as his parents’ likely divorces looms. To its credit, the film avoids many tropes of divorce tales, omitting the shrieking fights or shocking revelations of infidelity. True, as Jill seeks her freedom, her square, marine-biologist husband suffers a bout of sitting-around-in-a-robe, drinking-from-the-same-glass-without-washing-it type of melancholia, but it’s not as showy as many movie depressions. When seen through the eyes of their teenaged children, parents too easily become cartoons. Submarine‘s treatment of adults is less simplistic and more reasonable.
Which is not to say that there are no exaggerations here. Graham is a kind of character that shows up too frequently in indie movies, the quack seminar leader. (Think: Patrick Swayze in Donnie Darko, or Tom Cruise in Magnolia.) Graham instructs his followers how to harness colors to unlock the powers of the universe. It’s wacky, and it’s instantly telegraphed through his horrendous haircut that he’s not to be taken seriously. It’s a shame, too, because Jill and Lloyd otherwise appear to be refreshingly mature. Their conflict is cheapened with the introduction of Lloyd’s too easily ridiculed rival.
Then again, Graham may be another one of those contrivances in Oliver’s over-mediated self-understanding, a warning about the dangers of self-delusion. Graham sees himself as controlling the universe’s elemental forces. Oliver fancies himself the subject of a film worthy of an appreciative audience. The difference is, in Oliver’s case, he’s right.