Submarine is the kind of film that walks a very thin line between being appropriately offbeat and overblown with quirky pretentiousness. Those who can identify with the film will place it in the first category, those who cannot will relegate it to the second.
The film follows Oliver Tate (Craig Roberston), a 15 year old Welsh student who is in the middle of what he thinks is an existential crisis, although we would probably just refer to it as growing up. Submarine acts as a set of Sparks Notes on Oliver’s life, narrated and stylized by the youngster as he sets off to accomplish two goals: winning the heart (and body) of classmate Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige), and saving his parent’s crumbling marriage.
The first goal is to seduce Jordana and hopefully lose his virginity. Jordana is the sort of free spirit that only exists in movies like this. She doesn’t believe in romance, but does have a curious affinity for fire and finds Oliver sort of amusing. While he views her as a love interest, she may think of him as more of a project. Her charm, however, is sincere, and so there’s no questioning why he is drawn to her, even if she has a list of relationship requirements that specifically states “no emotions.”
Oliver’s parents are a different story. His father (Noah Taylor) is an obscure marine biologist who seems to have resigned from just about everything. When he hears Oliver may have a girlfriend, he makes him a young love mix tape with breakup songs already included, just in case. His mother (the perpetually delightful Sally Hawkins) has taken a curious interest in a new neighbor who may be a lover from the past, much to Oliver’s distaste. Between the pursuit of Jordana and the deflation of his parents’ marriage, Oliver has his work cut out for him.
On paper, this doesn’t look that spectacular. But Submarine works better than it should because it’s a film that knows exactly how its fifteen year hero old thinks. It’s a messy, awkward, often inappropriate state of mind, and each line of dialogue and narration nails the age perfectly. Director Richard Ayoade uses this tone to his advantage, creating a sort of mental direction that offers a visual match to Oliver’s wit and charm, without over stylizing or overdoing it. The editing is nearly flawless; cuts snap in and out of jokes, revealing everything in perfect timing. In terms of sheer construction, Submarine is a sturdy vessel.
What sets Submarine apart from films like Juno or Little Miss Sunshine is that it is willing to be much tougher with its content and humor. It is still a fun, cute picture, but it has a roughness around the edges that makes it a much more complete experience. Its humor is more crass, its sweetness more tender, and its sadness more despairing. There are moments here that evoke unnamed feelings of the confusion of youth, many of them free of dialogue but still speaking a language we all recognize.
The only moment where the film loses its grip a bit is the ending, which is predictable and appropriate, but still feels like it cuts a corner or two. But the ending isn’t what we remember. We remember feelings, both Oliver’s and our own, and how Submarine is able to fuse the two so effortlessly. And for that, we adore it.
If you can accept its occasionally overblown quirkiness, Submarine is an enjoyable, touching portrait growing up: A-