The latest in a long line of brainy, misunderstood teen protagonists, Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is, of course, too smart, too weird, too anxious for his own good. Like many young outsiders, his problems come not from being bullied, but from the chance occasions where loneliness and desperation force him out of his fringe comfort zone, the awkward periphery from where he can make wry comments and skulk about morosely. One of these occasions occurs early on in Submarine, when social bewilderment leads him into a round of bullying, ending with his pushing a dowdy female victim, a friend and sympathizing eccentric, into a puddle. The ghost of this incident hangs over the rest of this impressively mature film, whose conception of suffering as a necessary element of emotional progress stretches far beyond its clear-eyed handling of adolescent growing pains.
Oliver’s development, from being a weird recluse who fantasizes about personal interaction to becoming an active participant in his own life, stems from his connection with the unruly Jordana (Yasmin Paige), an iconic first-love character, whose constant attacks on his limits represent growth but also danger. Despite fancying himself a kind of fully-formed teenaged gentleman, one whose superior tastes and sensibilities speak of advancement beyond his dull peers, Oliver can only grow up by extending beyond himself. There’s nothing revolutionary about a wild female character dragging a straitlaced male into new experiences, but Submarine‘s depiction of a world where relationships are open conduits for both joy and endless concern is refreshingly honest.
It’s also a darkly stirring angle for a coming-of-age movie to take. The film expands its range by involving Oliver in the problems of his parents, where the struggle between his depressive, stagnant scientist father (Noah Taylor) and his unfulfilled mother (Sally Hawkins) mirrors his own battle between complacency and confusion. These two conflicts leave him as a relatably perplexed hero, one with a clear ancestor in Bud Cort’s titular Harold and Maude fatalist.
There’s a lot of other referential debris rattling around inside Submarine, but the film diminishes the magnitude of these influences by not leaning heavily on any of them. It cheats a little, using a mix of amateurish extreme close-ups and striking Welsh industrial vistas to substitute for real technical proficiency, but also applies more formal consideration than most films, namely teen-centered comedies, ever do. Godard-influenced intertitles (as well as a strong palette of Raoul Coutard-inspired primary colors) and a morbidly realistic worldview are further signs of Ayoade’s goals, which involve him striving to be both a smart screenwriter and a cinematic director. These touches also allow the movie to skirt a thin edge of ridiculousness while maintaining the kind of gravity necessary for it to avoid farce.
Mostly, Submarine succeeds by perfectly recapturing the way teenagers behave, the forced pretense of their actions, their deadly seriousness in dramatizing what amounts to minor emotional damage. Ayoade doesn’t diminish these feelings, or overplay jokes at his younger characters’ expense, and in this context Oliver’s indulgent private fantasies about his hopes and fears, a common escape-hatch in this type of film, feel relatively earned.
The same holds true for Submarine‘s other flights of fancy, which it pitches as subtly ridiculous comic rejoinders to the often dreary authenticity of its primary conflicts. Even so, the fact that a character like Graham (Paddy Considine), an ex-boyfriend of Oliver’s mother and the eventual wedge in her struggling marriage, is a comically silly self-help guru does slight injustice to otherwise mature proceedings. He’s used as a cinematic exhaust fan, blowing in easy laughs and keeping the atmosphere from growing too depressively stifling. But these kind of minor tonal clashes are to be expected in a first film, and Ayoade’s handle on nearly everything else is promising. Submarine‘s forcefully unwhimsical sense of fantasy ultimately serves to make the humdrum homeliness of Oliver’s world, with its crumbling industrial plants and sad little cottage homes, feel all the more insistently real.