' ' Cinema Romantico: Submarine

Thursday, January 26, 2012


15 year old Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is explaining via voiceover how a school classmate earned his street cred when two girls literally stabbed him in the back with compasses and he refused to react even as blood spots appeared all over his fine white shirt. Of this act Oliver says: "His stoicism reminded me of the brave men who died in the First World War." It's not just that this line is so funny I had to momentarily pause the DVD to necessarily extricate all my chuckles, it's that it summarizes in full the remarkable tone director Richard Ayoade manages to set up and then hold throughout. 

In recent years high school films have all sort of adopted that ironic "Juno" posing (though, to be clear, I did and still do like "Juno"), and while one might look at "Submarine" and be quick to heave ready-made labels at it such as quirky and/or Welsh West Anderson, these miss the mark. Students of Oliver's sort at that particular age are, above all else, what? What's a term that springs to mind? How about say, self-serious? Listen to the score of the film as composed by Alex Turner and Andrew Hewitt, a kind of orchestral lament, the kind of thing you might hear in, oh, I don't know, a WWI film. It takes itself seriously, much like Oliver takes himself seriously, much like the film takes itself very seriously, and which is what routinely makes it funny. The title is not lost on me. What is high school but becoming submersed in cliques and not re-surfacing for another four years?

His forehead hidden behind a tousle of black hair that suggests the eleventh or twelfth Beatle, Oliver is the sort who carries a briefcase to school and spies on his parents (Noah Taylor & Sally Hawkins), tabulating notes on their non-existent sex life. He wants to be a cool kid at his school and he wants to be a cool kid at school primarily so he can woo Jordana (Yasmin Page), resembling Zooey Deschanel if she played bass for The Pixies instead of fronting She & Him, who is, as they say, out of his league. He earns his stripes by aiding her and another mischievous classmate in bullying the equally uncool Zoe. And although he apologizes (sort of) to Zoe while the others run away, it is rather unmistakable that the film has chosen to align us with a character who bullies and then, apart from a passing mention or two of his victim, moves on. Risky. Not that he won't be met with his own string of come-uppances.

He and Jordana, miraculously, become an item. He forges ahead with no real idea of what he's doing, inviting her over to have sex and then cooking a sit-down dinner complete with boxed wine, alternately intriguing and repulsing her. The film, in fact, takes great care in painting Oliver as a true chip of the old man's shoulder, his nervously indifferent chatter and social obliviousness causing the slow-burn demolition of the relationship just like they led to the precipice of the downfall of his parents' union.

And because Oliver worries his parents are headed for divorce when an asinine ex-flame (Paddy Considine) re-enters his mom's life with potential intentions of wooing her, and because his dad essentially stands by and does nothing, Oliver decides to man up and take matters into his own hands.

The voiceover and the tone are meant to resemble a 15 year old telling his (so far) life's story as if it were a humongous piece of dramatic literature, occasionally even working in his own cinematic fantasies of how he sees things playing out. Of course, in the end he's forced to face up to the fact things in the real world don't always have those tidy dramatic resolutions, a fact which can be scary.

But also liberating.


Sam Turner said...

Glad you watched and even more glad that you largely seem to have enjoyed it. Still sitting on my shelf awaiting a rewatch, which I can't wait to get round to.

Nick Prigge said...

It's always nice to know something refreshing can emerge from well-visited genres.

Anonymous said...

I'm so tired of people complaining about it being too quirky or too much of Wes Anderson. Anderson wasn't the first one. I watched - and loved - Gregory's Girl years and years ago. And read Adrian Mole's diary. And laughed. I still laugh. I never grow tired of this genre and I think Submarine was one of the best debut movies last year. I loved not only the humor with strokes of seriousness, I also loved the freezing of images here and there and the score. All in all - it was really funny to me, which very few movies are. I'm picky like that.

Glad to see it getting a bit of love!

Nick Prigge said...

It was that guy's debut? Wow. That's impressive. To be able to be that assured in your vision & tone throughout in your first movie.....good stuff. Can't wait to see what he does next.

Derek Armstrong said...

I agree it was an assured debut but I also think it felt too derivative for my tastes. Still, I think this film is earnest and well meaning and gets some really good style points. The thing about calling something "familiar" (comparing it to Wes Anderson, for example) -- it's not something you do just to be a hater or mean-spirited. I'd describe it as more involuntary. Viewers can't help it if they feel that something resembles another something too closely, and it can be a difficult feeling to shake. Unfortunately, that's how I felt while watching this film, even if I recognized that pretty much everything about it was well done.

Nick Prigge said...

I will admit I am an excessively earnest person so earnest films can often hook me in.

And I wasn't trying to say that comparing one filmmaker's style to another's is bad, because Lord knows I do that all the time. I guess I tend to feel that Wes Anderson's work is much more loving and kind-hearted - kids films for adults - and I thought Submarine was tuned into something much darker - a film about kids who think they're ready to be adults(?).