Published Jun 09, 2011Virgin filmmakers love a good coming-of-age tale. Superficially, Richard Ayoade's Submarine could be just another charming Bildungsroman. Instead, the director has crafted a beautiful, erudite and darkly hilarious debut.
Set in the Welsh coastal town of Swansea in the '80s, it follows the ups and downs of 15-year-old Oliver Tate (a breakout performance by Craig Roberts). With equal parts ambivalence, disinterest and desperation, he endures a harrowing first love ― is there any other kind? ― and the potential breakdown of his parents' marriage. Of course, since he's a teenager, he spends an inordinate amount of time camped out in his head.
Whether fantasizing about his untimely death, and triumphant resurrection, cataloguing his affectations or rationalizing a foray into bullying, his inner-monologue provides some of the film's funniest moments. Additionally, by putting the mic in Oliver's hands, the director gets to freely indulge his melodramatic visual choices, notably filtering blossoming love through a Super 8 camera lens.
As the name suggests, Submarine is largely concerned with staying dry. Thus, water dominates both the mise-en-scène and the symbolic landscape. Oliver constantly finds himself near, beside or atop the sea, ensconced in a blue palette, and compared to a torpedo. Naturally, he only wades into the surf at the denouement. Perennially detached, he's aware of the world around him, but not quite ready to interact with it.
With his lived-in face and dry delivery, Roberts is perfectly cast. Similarly strong turns come from Yasmin Paige as a calculating love interest, Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins as his flighty parents, and Paddy Considine as a mullet-rocking quasi-guru (think Tom Cruise in Magnolia, but with a kick-ass van and a ninja fascination).
Thematically, it inevitably strays into Juno and The Squid and the Whale territory, but Ayoade's nuanced, thoughtful script (adapted from Joe Dunthorne's novel of the same name) is strikingly original. Plus, Welsh accents make almost anything fresh. (Alliance)