Submerged in a Sea of Hormones: ‘Submarine’

Just as some trend-averse film critics have gone on watch, ready to pounce on and dismiss any female character attractive, quirky, or enjoyable enough to qualify as a “manic pixie dream girl,” so, too, have many skeptics been trained to regard any movie about offbeat and/or anti-social young people with utmost disdain. In short: thou shalt not imitate Rushmore. All the President’s Men, The Godfather, The Goonies…these are all acceptable movies to rip off. Rushmore, though, should only be attempted by Wes Anderson (and really, it seems like some people would prefer if Anderson himself wouldn’t attempt much of anything).

That is not to say that Richard Ayoade’s Submarine is a Rushmore knockoff in need of a permission slip. It garnered some strong reviews during its theatrical release, and it’s based on a novel by Joe Dunthorne. But the film, now on DVD, still runs the risk of the dreaded Anderson comparison, which would be a shame — in small part because it’s not quite as surefooted as Rushmore (few films are), but moreover because it’s a lovely, beautifully shot little coming-of-age comedy itself.

The comer-of-age in question is Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), a Welsh teenager trying to get a girlfriend and save his parents’ marriage. He does these things mostly on his own, as Oliver has few if any real friends, which strengthens his bizarre interior life: we see him imagining his death accompanied by news reports featuring hysterical mourners; we hear him describe a memory as Super 8 footage, then see it rendered that way even though he’s not actually being filmed.

The film’s narration, deadpan subtitles, and outsider sensibility do bring to mind Anderson, but Oliver’s world feels even more isolated, and more rooted in his eccentric teenage head, than that of Max Fischer, who at least brought his fantasies to life with theatrical extracurricular aplomb. Oliver, in short, is more like an actual loner weirdo than Max, who fancied himself a leader of men, or at least boys. In any case, there are reference points beyond Wes: some post-industrial landscapes bring to mind a UK spin on David Gordon Green, while Oliver’s sneaky observational skills – he monitors his parents’ bedroom lighting to ascertain how often they make love – come off like a slightly twisted version of Harriet the Spy.

Being a teenage boy, Oliver’s spying is hormonally motivated, of course. The object of his affection, chosen strategically because she is “mildly unpopular” and therefore more attainable, is Jordana (Yasmin Paige). She’s most certainly not manic or a pixie or a conventional dreamgirl; she’s a part-time bully with problems of her own, who first takes to Oliver as a means of blackmailing someone else. But she gets to like him, or seems to, and soon the two are running on the beach and setting off various firecrackers (Jordana is also something of a pyromaniac).

Their courtship takes up much of the very funny first half-hour of Submarine; 90 minutes of comedy this strong would qualify the film as one of the funniest of the year. The material gets more melancholy, though, as Oliver’s delusions are challenged and he finds himself predictably but still touchingly at sea with the responsibilities of growing up. His father (Noah Taylor) suffers from depression, which leads his mum (Sally Hawkins) to flirt with an old flame, a dodgy motivational speaker (Paddy Considine). Here is the only point where Submarine‘s debts to other films weaken it: so many indies imagine that the world is full of shabby motivational speakers that need to be exposed as pretentious frauds.

Both Submarine and Donnie Darko, for example, seem to consider the presence of these phonies as particularly emblematic of their eighties settings; what these movies don’t seem to understand is that elaborate parodies of self-help routines can, when presented at length, become just as tedious as actual self-help routines. Then again, writer-director Richard Ayoade seems to understand that less is more with this character. On the DVD, about half of the thirteen minutes of deleted scenes feature the Considine character; what remains in the film has been cut back. The deleted scenes in general reveal Ayoade’s skill in cutting together a brisk narrative that nonetheless shows great attention to details and small moments, from the vivid colors often set against cloudy or dusky scenery to the way Oliver notices Jordana’s jacket brushing his own when they pass each other in the hallway.

The US DVD, unfortunately, doesn’t offer many details itself; Ayoade doesn’t provide a commentary track, therefore keeping mum on his transition from writer/director/performer on various British TV series to feature work. Maybe the lack of bells and whistles is just further evidence of Ayoade’s self-assurance – and that Submarine is a small movie with a lot more going on than its influences.

RATING 7 / 10