The Awkwardness and the Ecstasy

Directed by Richard Ayoade (2010)

It was impossible to watch Richard Ayoade’s Submarine without thinking of Wes Anderson films.  The wistful pop songs, the eccentric characters, the title cards, the montages, the depressive-comic tone, even the uniforms (the two central characters are almost always dressed in overcoats – one red, one blue).  Above all, the grandiose teenage boy at the center of Submarine is as Wesandersonesque a figure as you can get.

I love Wes Anderson films, so even if it feels a bit stylistically derivative, I’m a sucker for Submarine.  Then again, I saw a reviewer compare Submarine to Harold and Maude, and that feels just right. Maybe Wes Anderson owes some things to Hal Ashby, but whatever the lineage behind Submarine, it’s sad, funny, just weird enough, a little precious, and has Sally Hawkins, to boot.  Can you resist that recipe? I can’t.

Submarine is a coming-of-age film set in Wales and starring a remarkable young actor named Craig Roberts as a high schooler named Oliver.  He’s not exceptionally handsome – has, instead, a certain puckish look to his features matched with eyes that look like he could use a good, long rest.  Oliver is an unpopular kid and he knows it, but that may be in part because he can’t control his long, digressive speeches – even in class – and he is, very much, the star of his own imagined movie.  Early in the film, to brace himself for a day of school, he fantasizes how crushed the entire community – in fact, the entire country of Wales – would be if he were to die.

There’s a strong whiff of Holden Caulfield around Oliver, so it comes as no surprise when he suggests that his girlfriend, Jordana, reads Catcher in the Rye and Nietzsche, “So that we can have some things in common.”  Jordana replies, witheringly, “What makes you think I’d want to be like you?”  Oliver lacks insight into just how annoying his pretentiousness can be.

Submarine follows two subplots:  Oliver’s quest to win and keep Jordana (and lose his virginity), and his fear that his parents’ marriage is falling apart.

With all respect to Craig Roberts’ great performance as Oliver, Jordana (Yasmin Paige) may be the best thing about Submarine.  Oliver chooses her to be the object of his affections in part because she’s not too popular to seem attainable.  She’s a bit of a bully, swears ferociously, smokes, sets the occasional fire, and is almost entirely devoid of sentimentality.  After Jordana agrees to have sex with Oliver, Oliver stages their evening as if he’s read a gentlemen’s guide to romance from 1965.  One look at the rose petals strewn bedroom and Jordana walks out of the house in disgust.  She’s not all hard outer shell, though, and when Oliver fails her, she feels it deeply.

As for Oliver’s parents, they do seem to have lost their spark. Oliver’s marine biologist dad (Noah Taylor) is lost in his own interests: Oliver’s mom, played by the wonderful Sally Hawkins, is restless and ready for change.  When an old flame, a wild looking motivational speaker (Paddy Considine), moves in across the street, Oliver worries that his mother is headed for infidelity.  Oliver’s efforts to keep his parents together are clumsy, but a reminder that this intellectually ostentatious lothario is still a child who finds security in the his family he’s always known.

Richard Ayoade seems slightly less smitten with his quirky characters than Wes Anderson, and thus willing to let them be more genuinely unlikeable at times.  That’s part of what I ultimately appreciated about Submarine.  Oliver is not a terrifically charismatic kid like Anderson’s Max Fischer (Rushmore, 1998), he’s just a bright kid who tries too hard. Oliver says too much, says the wrong things, doesn’t seem to know when to quit. “Your skin looks terrible,” he blurts out in the middle of trying to reconcile with Jordana. Her response is about what you’d expect.

Submarine is downbeat but not depressing. It ends on a hopeful note – not only romantically, but with the sense that Oliver may yet grow in wisdom and humility.

Most Typical Teen Movie Moment:  The romantic grand gesture.  After Oliver and Jordana break up he makes a public plea for Jordana to forgive him, in the schoolyard where she’s sitting with her new boyfriend.  “This is the moment where you leave him and go with me,” he concludes.  “Are you coming?” It does not work out the way that Oliver hopes.