Submarine manages a kind of miraculous balancing act: it’s cynical without being nasty; wistful without being sickly; and funny without being juvenile. As much a product of director Richard Ayoade as it is an adaptation of Joe Dunthorne’s novel, the film’s vibrant, cine-literate, fourth-wall-breaking verve brilliantly captures the sense of how we as people valiantly attempt to impose a cinematic outlook on our day-to-day lives, before unveiling the poignant moment that comes when we realise our lives don’t march to the whir of a Super Eight camera.
Those who’ve watched interviews with Ayoade will be well-aware of his affinity for deadpan distance and he’s effectively managed to bring this unique sense of humour to bear on his feature debut. But the film needs more than that to work as an emotional experience. Thankfully, Ayoade also has an enormous sense of compassion and pathos (albeit the non-sentimental type) behind the clipped tones and specs. His film is not merely content to make us laugh but reverberates around the mind long after it finishes, as eager to realistically portray the painful string of first teenage love as it is to play it for giggles.
Of course, the word ‘realistic’ is a relative term. The film instead occupies the hyper-reality seen in the likes of TV’s Spaced, whereby cinematic devices and deliberate artifice somehow lend greater emotional authenticity to the the characters even when exaggerating their characteristics. After all, who hasn’t walked down the road after seeing a Bond film and not imagined glancing left to right wearing a sharp tuxedo? Such observations haven’t passed Submarine’s hero, Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) by.
A precocious school-boy in non period-specific Wales (a few fleeting details suggest it’s the mid-80s), Oliver has two objectives: to lose his virginity to red-coated Jordana (Yasmin Paige) and to prevent the break-up of his parents’ marriage (played by Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor). The presence of Paddy Considine as a leather-clad new-age guru who’s just moved in next door complicates the latter task somewhat, and pyromaniac Jordana is just as much of an inscrutable mystery to Oliver’s teenage brain.
One of the film’s great joys is how it throws us into that turbulent period during teenage life where we believe complex emotional issues can be solved objectively. Oliver’s pain as he comes to realise just how intangible adult concerns are is brilliantly brought across through Ayoade’s lively direction and an utterly winning, witty performance from Roberts. Deploying narration, intertextuality and a plethora of angles and speeds to represent the life of the central character, one who is aware that his life doesn’t have the budget for much more than a zoom out for a key scene, Ayoade ensures the film is possessed of a refreshingly unpredictable quality that perfectly captures teenage life.
But it’s no mere technical exercise. Roberts, in an wonderfully assured, star-making role, is just as effective at evoking the vulnerability beneath Oliver’s caustic exterior as he is at portraying the casual vindictiveness that goes with being a young adult (he’s not above bullying an overweight girl at school in order to gain further social status). As the Don’t Look Now-styled object of Oliver’s affection, Paige is no less effective. As the adults of the piece, Hawkins and Taylor nimbly skirt the edge of caricature while Considine lands right smack bang in the middle of it (not that it’s a bad thing -as per Oliver’s view, Considine is the big bad wolf and it makes sense for him to act it so).
It can’t be denied that the film is a game of two halves, with the vibrancy and initial heat of Oliver and Jordana’s initial union burning away into a more mature consideration of teenage versus adult responsibilities. Such is the film’s success that it hardly feels like a bait and switch when it increasingly turns its attention to Oliver’s domestic problems in the second half, putting adolescent love and a degree of the humour to the back as the protagonist deals with -arguably -more vital concerns. But rather than going off the rails, this transformation from funny to wistful, mirroring the transition from teenage to young adult, is quite wonderfully managed, proof that the film has a larger agenda than simply tickling our funny bone. Beautifully filmed, acted and scored (Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys contributes six songs), the new benchmark for teen cinema has been set.