[This review is a reprint of my review that ran during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival]
Richard Ayoade’s Submarine is like an indie version of last year’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Both movies are coming-of-age stories that center on a lead character who views his world through the lens of his interests. But whereas Scott sees the world in shades of videogames and pop culture, Submarine’s eccentric protagonist, 15-year-old Oliver Tate, brings a French New Wave and erudite nature to his world view. The film wisely grounds its lead character by having him grapple with simple but relatable problems: he doesn’t know how to be a good boyfriend and his parents’ marriage is disintegrating due in part to his mom’s old flame moving in next door. Ayoade brings an enchanting and delightful visual style to his debut feature and compliments it with an impressive score and strong performances. While Submarine may not break any new ground or leave your head spinning, it’s a grand announcement that Ayoade is a director you’ll need to keep on your radar.
Divided into three chapters plus a prologue and epilogue, Submarine is the tale of Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts). Oliver is a pragmatist who imagines himself as a grand, enigmatic hero whose death would send the entire nation of Wales into an outpouring of grief. Oliver is determined to get a girlfriend and has set his sights on Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige). It’s not that he finds her particularly attractive or likable. He simply sees her as attainable. It’s a cold, calculating approach to romance, but Roberts’ performance combined with Ayoade’s comic timing makes Oliver’s plan come off as charming.
While Oliver is developing his relationship with Jordana, the relationship between his parents is deteriorating. His father Lloyd (Noah Taylor) and mother Jill (Sally Hawkins) seem uninterested in sex (Oliver can tell by the setting on their bedroom’s dimmer switch) and even less interested in each other. Matters become more complicated when their new neighbor Graham (Paddy Considine) is also Jill’s old flame. It’s humorous to see Oliver try to deal with these emotional situations in a pragmatic fashion until the emotional heart of the film begins to beat and Oliver discovers he’s become emotionally invested in what he previously considered to be objective goals.
Some may watch Submarine and complain that Oliver doesn’t seem like a real person. These people would do well to remember that Oliver, as the story’s narrator and protagonist, is showing himself as he believes he actually is. When you see that Oliver has posters for Le Samourai and Le Circle Rouge in his bedroom, it makes sense that the film should have a French New Wave aesthetic. It also makes the film damn funny and clever. Yes, it’s also quirky, but not for the sake of being so. The oddball humor is intended to compliment the character and it does so wonderfully.
The wit of Submarine is only exceeded by its magnificent visual style. While there are shades of Wes Anderson and a touch of Michel Gondry, Ayoade does wonderful work not only with the color template, but with capturing the scenery of Wales. Ayoade also has terrific shot selection which helps hammer home the dry comic wit of his screenplay. He then wraps it all together with a beautiful score from Andrew Hewitt.
Unfortunately, as the film begins to wear on into its third act, the simplistic premise begins to undermine Oliver’s emotional awakening. While he’s not shown to be a cold person (although there’s one joke that, while funny, goes too far and makes him out to be a sociopath), having Oliver come to grips with the emotional conflict in his life somehow makes his story feel less significant. Previously, Oliver Tate was the hero of the Grand Epic of Oliver Tate. When he realizes that the story won’t go his way and that his calculating logic has failed to yield the outcome he predicted, Submarine becomes a smaller film. The humor fades to the background and Oliver’s problems no longer seem that weighty. I applaud Ayoade for not resting on his laurels and trying to challenge the tone of his story, but it results in a shaky finish.
Despite a slightly weak third act and emotional resolution, Submarine is a must-see film that will make you laugh, dazzle you with its visual prowess, and have you excited to see what Ayoade will do next.