May 31, 2011


by Vadim Rizov


With his Bud Cort haircut and morbid sensibility, Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is too smart for Swansea, Wales, an industrial city mired in some seriously mid-80s Thatcherite doldrums. The trouble with Oliver is that he knows he's clever, which could justify anything: surreptitiously monitoring his parents' sex life, taunting an overweight girl to make local cutie Jordana (Yasmin Paige) notice him as a real livewire, or trying to trash the house of downhill neighbor Graham Purvis (Paddy Considine) who may be having an affair with mom (Sally Hawkins).

Submarine Fortunately, Submarine, Richard Ayoade's feature debut, is aware of Oliver's self-justifying nature and the ways it could warp him. Harold and Maude's winsome self-pity hasn't worn well, no matter what Oliver thinks, and that haircut can only make up for so much. Acutely aware of the long tradition of films about disaffected young men coming to terms with themselves, Ayoade doesn't duck the precedent: instead, like Oliver (who envisions what's happening now as a future nostalgic memory unspooling in his mind's literal projector), he nods to seemingly every single precursor. There's a 400 Blows-quoting dash across the beach, a The Graduate style leap into the pool, the aforementioned Cort-do, and—befitting the film's emphasis on sexual jealousy and youthful insecurity—allusions to Rushmore (itself indebted to Salinger, checking off the Catcher in the Rye box). In that film, Max Fisher's pining for Miss Cross is ambiently reinforced on the soundtrack by the crashing of beach waves and seagulls crying; the same sound effect accompanies Oliver's dreams of Jordana.

Submarine As a movie about an astutely self-conscious adolescent, Submarine has invited unimaginative comparisons not just to the pantheon of teen male self-pity/coming-of-age but to films like Juno, which actively court the label "quirky." That's unfairly reductive, and in any case Ayoade doesn't do the kind of hermetic tableaux associated with Garden State, The Royal Tenenbaums, et al.: the only moves he straight-out cops from Wes Anderson are a fondness for slow, anachronistic zooms-in and –out, and a vicious whip-pan within the classroom's confines. Mostly cinematographer Erik Wilson's camera moves like a demon, shaking and jolting behind the ever-agitated Oliver. Stylistically, the film is also compartmentalized—not by an arch narrator or chapter titles, but by dreamy fades (to red or blue) and disorienting dream sequences that are scary rather than cuddly.

Submarine Like many a comic turned semi-tragic clown, when Ayoade (a veteran of British TV, best known as a writer and performer on The IT Crowd) decides it's time to modulate the tone downwards, he can't figure out how to keep the energy going; the third act is a start-stop affair. Oliver's two most important relationships are with depressive father Lloyd (Noah Taylor) and Jordana, and his ill-treatment of the latter can be traced directly back to dear old dad. Ayoade hammers it home a bit too hard: when Oliver fails to show up on an important occasion knowing Jordana will be devastated, he hangs out with Lloyd (who's doing the same to his wife), which leads to an incisive conversation/grilling about Lloyd's depression. Too passive and helpless to answer with anything less than crushing honesty about his morose, non-shaven, stringy-haired existence, a father suggests to his son a few lessons about being self-aware of one's flaws vs. taking responsibility for them that our young hero must retain for the final act.

Submarine But it's his relationship with Jordana that leads to some of the film's biggest, swooniest gestures: their first kiss (and therefore Oliver's initiation into the world of relationships) takes place under train tracks, with shocking audio jolts from the locomotive passing overhead. (It tastes, he says, like "milk, pink mints and Dunhill International.") Jordana's the closest thing Swansea has to Anna Karina, a fact Oliver—who initially pursues her as part of a cold-blooded calculation about her body issues and attendant vulnerability—slowly grows to appreciate. He treats her badly anyway, a fact he only realizes once his growing paranoia has swelled to its maximum and burst. Jordana's exasperated outburst at film's end—"Why are you such a total dick?"—is a less gentle version of Margaret Yang's reproof to Max in Rushmore: "you were a real jerk to me." But Oliver's answer is the exact opposite of Max's puppy-dog "I know." "I don't know," he responds, the question and answer in no way exclusive to first relationships. Submarine isn't the story of how the dickish teen become a less-dickish adult: Oliver learns he is a jerk rather than a Very Special Person, but the next transformative move's on him.

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Posted by ahillis at May 31, 2011 2:39 PM