Catherine Reviews Richard Ayoade’s Submarine [IFFBoston 2011 Review]

By the end of Submarine, the audience will have spent ninety minutes in the head of Oliver Tate.  It is an inventive mind, one full of hypothetical situations, observations and the typical self-absorption maintained by all teenagers. Richard Ayoade’s film, adapted by Joe Dunthorne’s novel, may not be quite the new classic it is likely destined to become, but it surely deserves its praise for expressing one character’s perspective with humor and insight, using a visual approach that is sure to impress.

Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is a fifteen-year old growing up in Swansea. His mother Jill (Sally Hawkins) and father Lloyd (Noah Taylor) are going through a rough patch. Their neighbor Graham (Paddy Considine) is a mullet-wearing guru who claims to see the colors within people. He was Jill’s first love and she seems to be considering an affair with him, much to the chagrin of Oliver who is anxiously keeping track of these developments. In the meantime, he and fellow classmate Jordana (Yasmin Paige), a hardened girl with a bright red coat who moderately enjoys bullying and detests anything romantic, fall into a relationship. His efforts to be a great boyfriend are called into question when he learns that Jordana’s mother is dying of cancer. Oliver juggles this revelation with his efforts to save his parent’s marriage.

The style of the film reflects Oliver and the way he sees life. Unsurprisingly, Submarine pops visually, with sharp editing used to depict a highly subjective viewpoint. Voice-over narration is also used extensively and very successfully to show Oliver’s thought-process. Oliver tends to be overly dramatic, and thus, so is the film. Something that really works in Submarine is how Oliver’s self-absorption is handled. It is the reason for all the stylistic choices made and a lot of his thoughts support just how much of a teenager Oliver really is. His confident ability to sum up his parents in a few short sentences and the way he internally reacts to Jordana’s news are both examples of how Oliver’s self-absorption is realized. This trait of his is confronted head-on towards the end. The entire feel of the film ties in with the very characteristic that has become a problem for Oliver and his dilemma. It is a smart move and one that cannot be praised enough.

The casting and ensemble work of Submarine are a specific highlight. All five main cast members are perfect in their roles. Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige shine as Oliver and Jordana. Roberts lends an appropriately earnest air while Paige gives Jordana a moody unpredictability that is vital to her character. As the adults, Sally Hawkins, Noah Taylor and Paddy Considine, all incredible actors, are even more entertaining to watch. All three show off their comedic timing as well as pulling off a tough job by portraying their characters as Oliver sees them, but allowing them to exist outside of their perceived caricatures.

Erik Wilson’s cinematography is breathtaking. Every color stands out and the look of the film is rich beyond words. There are many scenes of the coast that radiate artistic beauty. The entire film has a wonderful glow to it and his work here is entirely assured and accomplished. Ayoade is a real talent who goes against the grain in relation to most other youth-based films from the U.K. Some people will see this and categorize it as a Rushmore knock-off.  Admittedly I take issue with a few too overt stylistic choices as well as the use of spying and sabotage that harks back too much to the aforementioned film. While this is nowhere near the innovation of Rushmore, it is almost entirely its own work. Thinking about youth-based films from the U.K as usually being very serious pieces about class, gangs or the nature of boarding schools, Submarine emerges as original in its country and it certainly will make its mark in the U.S.

Something that does stick out is that Oliver and Jordana never feel quite genuine enough as a couple. The film gets very close to capitalizing on what is there. The material between them is strong. Both actors are more than excellent in their roles and have a lot of chemistry together. Oliver and Jordana are sufficiently interesting and Jordana adds a panache not often seen in teen romances. As the film goes on though, one starts to think; why should they be together? It feels much more like a legitimate but ultimately passing relationship that is only meaningful in its existing time. At a certain point, it could be said that the audience sees their relationship as Oliver does. However, it still does not account for the unconvincingly placed substantiality between the two. This could be said about the vast majority of romances; the reason I complain about it here is because they were very close to reaching their goal, but came up ever-so-slightly empty.

Submarine is inventive, funny, insightful and honest. It stays true to its protagonist and never betrays him. Oliver makes many matter-of-fact statements that relay extremity, making it easy for the film to look at him as a ridiculous figure; but it never does. This wonderful coming-of-age film throws itself into this self-conscious era of cinema we are in without shame and, despite its occasional misgivings, is all the better for it.

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