Submarine *** ½
Directed by: Richard Ayoade.
Written by: Richard Ayoade based on the novel by Joe Dunthorne.
Starring: Craig Roberts (Oliver Tate), Yasmin Paige (Jordana Bevan), Noah Taylor (Lloyd Tate), Paddy Considine (Graham Purvis), Sally Hawkins (Jill Tate), Darren Evans (Chips), Osian Cai Dulais (Mark Pritchard), Lily McCann (Zoe Preece), Otis Lloyd (Keiron), Elinor Crawley (Abby Smuts), Steffan Rhodri (Mr. Davey), Gemma Chan (Kim-Lin).
When all is said and done, I think Wes Anderson may turn out to be the most influential director of his generation. Not the best, although he has a rock solid resume, but the one whose career influences the people who came after the most. Take Richard Ayoade’s Submarine for example. The film has the same type of deadpan comic brilliance that is on display in the best of Anderson’s work. It looks at a dysfunctional family in Wales, and is a coming of age story about a smarter than normal 16 year old boy. Yes, to a certain extent, Submarine could be called Rushmore in Wales, except that the film works. It is funny and well acted, and debut filmmaker Ayoade has an interesting visual style. In short, I had a blast at Submarine, like I do whenever I watch a Wes Anderson movie.
The movie stars Craig Roberts, as Oliver Tate, who helpfully informs his American viewers in a letter than opens the film, where Wales is, and what is it best known for (Catherine Zeta-Jones and Tom Jones), and that the film we are about to see is very important, and we should give it our outmost respect. At the moment the letter came on the screen, I knew that Submarine was either going to be one of the funniest comedies of the year, or yet another insufferable bit of naval gazing for hipsters. Luckily, it’s the first.
It’s the 1980s, and Oliver is an only child, living with his depressive father (Noah Taylor) and chipper mother (Sally Hawkins). He is concerned, and rightly so, that his parents marriage is going through a tough time, and it only gets tougher when Graham Purvis (Paddy Considine), a new age guru who talks incessantly about how we are all made of lights, moves in next door. He was once his mother’s boyfriend, when they were teenagers, and perhaps he can woo her back again. Oliver makes it his business to spy on them.
But he has other problems as well. In his mind, he is popular (he imagines the National outporing of grief that would greet his death), but in reality, he’s one of those teenagers in the middle. He isn’t really picked on that much, but he isn’t really popular either. He wants to lose his virginity, and needs to find a girl willing. He sets his sights on Jordana Breven (Yasmin Paige), because she isn’t overly popular, and available, since she was recently dumped. She is also quite cute, with only a mild case of encyzma being a flaw. He figures the simple fact that she is a girl, will elevate his social standing. And so Submarine sets off on its dual tracks – Oliver trying to hold his parents together on one hand, and trying to get into Jordana’s pants on the other. And of course, nothing is quite as simple as Oliver plans it. Other people, it would appear, have plans, thoughts and feelings of their own.
In Craig Roberts, Ayoade has found the perfect actor to play Oliver Tate. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert compared Roberts to a young Bud Cort, of Harold and Maude fame, and the comparison is apt – just like it would be to compare him to Jason Schwartzman, the star of Rushmore. What all of these young me share is an intelligence that is perhaps slightly greater than their peers, but still the product of young minds, who haven’t quite figured out life yet. Oliver is shy and quiet, yet he likes to try to put up a tough façade for others, but it simply comes out awkwardly. Yasmin Paige is equally great as Jordana, who slowly brings Oliver out of his shell a little bit, realizing he’s awkward, and decides to take the lead. She storms out on him one day, but then reads the note he gave her, and comes back. Not because the letter is romantic – it isn’t, it is the creepiest letter ever written by someone who isn’t a stalker – but because his heart seems to be in the right place. It’s only when Oliver realizes that she may have problems that are outside his control that he starts to falter.
And the adults in the movie are gloriously clueless and awkward in their own ways. Noah Taylor is quite good as Oliver’s quiet father, who seems to blend into the furniture in their house, and never once raises his voice over a bare whisper. Sally Hawkins is excellent as his wife, who may have finally had enough of it. And Paddy Considine is absolutely hilarious as the guru, who spots off complete nonsense, but does so with such confidence, that people believe him. By watching these three, Oliver realizes life isn’t going to get any simpler.
There are moments in Submarine as funny as anything I’ve seen this year (a highlight is when Oliver’s parents sit him down and explain exactly what happened in the back of Graham’s van), but the film is also surprisingly, touchingly honest. Ayoade suffers a little bit, like many first time directors do, is perhaps trying to be a little too stylistic, but that is only a couple of moments. And while the film at times walk the fine line between clever and hip and simple pretensionious, it never quite goes across it. Overall, Submarine is one of the best comedies of the year. I look forward to seeing what Ayoade does next.