REVIEW: Submarine [2011]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 97 minutes | Release Date: March 18th, 2011 (UK)
Studio: Optimum Releasing / The Weinstein Company
Director(s): Richard Ayoade
Writer(s): Richard Ayoade / Joe Dunthorne (novel)

“Cancer trumps potential infidelity”

Only having seen one episode of “The IT Crowd” doesn’t make me a professional on the subject, but I do recall thinking it quirky, funny, and a bit awkward. It’s no surprise then that the directorial debut of one of its actors would be all those things—possibly even farther down the spectrum towards their extremes. Based on a novel by Joe Dunthorne, Richard Ayoade brings 1986 Swansea, Wales to life with a coming of age tale much more intelligent than the standard teen sex comedy. It’s not just Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) trying his best to survive adolescence amidst the ruthless nature of school-aged children and raging hormones, but also his parents attempting to work through their prevailing ambivalence. Water is drowning the entire Tate family and their titular Submarine seems perfectly happy floating six miles deep alone.

An odd boy who enjoys hiding in plain sight and standing still even when caught as though motion would give away his position, Oliver is so pretentious he can’t comprehend the fact he may be the least liked kid in school. Imagining the world’s reaction to his death, he sees girls crying, candlelight vigils honoring, and newscasters bringing the story of pain and sorrow to the masses. Believing himself to be popular and intellectually superior in voiceover, it’s a treat to watch his awkwardness in action with buggy eyes, stoic embarrassment, and an unassured naivety in talking to women. Everything is a mission to plan for and execute whether routine checks of his parents’ sex life—courtesy of the bedroom light dimmer switch—or courting the way-too-cool-for-him Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige).

Reconnaissance discovers the girl to be single—thanks to a cheating ex-boyfriend—and to have a penchant for bullying if able to stay on the periphery to laugh and enjoy. So, at the detriment of Zoe Preece (Lily McCann), Oliver decides to forgo the usual good nature that has made him so ‘popular’ and takes a walk on the dark side to catch Jordana’s eye. Winning him a kiss—blackmail intentions on her part beside the point—a steady series of events accidentally proving his loyalty and courage in the face of bullies and ridicule soon achieves the larger victory of calling her his girlfriend. Devoid of emotion, their relationship is more an experiment in futility as her experience and maturity only exacerbates his obvious lack thereof. Awkwardness be damned, though, adversity rears its head to break through the ice of one and build a wall for the other.

While all this is happening, Lloyd (Noah Taylor) and Jill Tate (Sally Hawkins) have their own relationship rough patch to work through. Their light seems on full every morning Oliver checks and Lloyd’s sad sack demeanor remains drowned in a glass of hot lemon water as Jill rekindles an old friendship with the psychic motivational speaker Graham Purvis (Paddy Considine) now living across the street. The boy watches a chasm form between his parents and tries his best to help by writing lewd love letters from father to mother. Saving his family becomes the prime directive and Oliver must put Jordana on the back burner despite her mother possibly being dead in a week. What he explains to himself as a necessary sacrifice only proves how like father like son the Tates are. When their women need them the most, they hold their breath and descend deeper in hopes everything will be better upon resurfacing.

And thus Submarine moves along as the Tates partake in a self-destructive dance of crossed emotions and fear-inducing commitment. Set to a score by Ayoade’s friend and Arctic Monkeys lead singer Alex Turner, the film’s aesthetic doesn’t simply portray the mid-80s, but actually looks like it was shot then too. There is a dark, saturated quality to set it apart from other releases this year—off-kilter enough for the blue and red fades between scenes not to appear out-of-place. Short flashback expository vignettes juxtapose with a lingering eye on the present as the tempo quickens and slows while Ayoade conducts his orchestral work to great effect. Eccentricities like Hawkins clumsily giving a double thumbs-up and Taylor offering a firm handshake to their son upon learning about his girlfriend create a perfect mix of nervous laughter and quiet charm. These more subdued instances brilliantly oppose the flamboyant ninja stylings of Considine’s mulleted neighbor and Paige’s biting pragmatism towards love.

Working equally well in the spheres of childhood and adulthood, there is a distinct pleasure in watching Roberts completely embody the pompously shy Oliver. He has all the answers in his head and orchestrates them disastrously. All the little things prove his lack of compassion while an underlying guilt miraculously redeems. Scenes like Christmas dinner at the Bevans show Oliver sitting alone at the table pushing food about his plate to wait out tumultuous emotions of death in the background. Survival equals ignorance, perfectly portraying his insecure naivety and unavoidable selfishness. Like his father’s complete disdain for the simpleminded and easily manipulated, Oliver’s idea of creating similar interests with Jordana—besides arson—is giving her a selection of cultured books. It’s the kind of lofty ego that made The Squid and the Whale so great.

Taylor is fantastic as the emotionally passive husband, Hawkins wonderfully plays the conflicted wife needing more, and Considine is so over-the-top you almost think he belongs in a different movie before realizing he is everything Lloyd Tate isn’t. They serve as nice fodder to mirror the struggles of Oliver and Jordana, but it’s the children who steal the show. With bit parts like Chips (Darren Evans) and his cronies’ succinct words or the rest of the school’s myriad cliques wanting a show, Roberts’ methodical nature only becomes more pronounced as he tries to live alongside the unsophisticated society he’s been forced to exist within. Paige’s handle on emotion and stunning comedic timing with even a brief glance in the distance proves both her ability and Ayoade’s successful use of the frame. A kindred soul to Rushmore’s Max Fischer, Oliver and Submarine don’t quite reach that film’s heights, it they come pretty close.

[1] Craig Roberts as Oliver Tate and Yasmin Paige as Jordana in Richard Ayoade’s film SUBMARINE. Photo by: Dean Rogers/ The Weinstein Company.
[2] Craig Roberts as Oliver Tate and Noah Taylor as Lloyd in Richard Ayoade’s film SUBMARINE. Photo by: Dean Rogers/ The Weinstein Company.
[3] Paddy Considine as Graham in Richard Ayoade’s film SUBMARINE. Photo by: Dean Rogers/ The Weinstein Company.

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