Craig Roberts as Oliver Tate
Yasmin Paige as Jordana Bevan
Sally Hawkins as Jill Tate
Noah Taylor as Lloyd Tate
Paddy Considine as Graham
Gemma Chan as Kim-Lin
Steffan Rhodri as Mr. Davey
Melanie Walters as Judie Bevan
Directed by Richard Ayoade
Everybody comes of age some time or another, and if you haven’t learned that from personal experience yet, movies will take the burden off of you, because every director makes a coming-of-age film at some time or another, too. On the one hand, that much focus on a particular point of life means a lot of it is going to be mediocre if not out and out bad. On the other hand, the sheer number of versions of the story make originality a tough reach, automatically putting the filmmaker at a disadvantage.
Which makes it easy to seem to overhype something like Richard Ayoade’s “Submarine” when it comes along. A little bit of eccentricity and wit can go a long way and after a desert of weak offerings it’s easy to get lost in the moment of finding something interesting and proclaim it greater than it is, only later finding out there’s not much beneath the surface.
“Submarine” is all about what’s beneath the surface, which is really saying something considering how interesting and eccentric that surface is.
Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is trying as hard as he can to keep his head above water. That’s a difficult exercise when you’re an introspective Welsh boy who’s introspective marine biologist father (Noah Taylor) and extremely open secretary mother (Sally Hawkins) continually push and pull him between extremes of how to approach the world. It’s a push and pull which becomes even more acute when Mother Tate’s old boyfriend (Paddy Considine) moves in next door, prompting Oliver to worry that the end of his parents’ marriage, and with it his childhood, is nigh.
This could easily be, and has been, extremely dark and dreary and depressing but comedian-turned-music video director Richard Ayoade will have none of that, attacking every dark side of adolescence with wit and charm. Wit and charm born of pain, to be sure, but funny is funny. It’s particularly impressive considering how little of the pain of life he shies away from. Nothing this icky should be so charming.
It reminds of nothing so much of a young Jeunet or Wes Anderson but with no cynicism, just an occasional façade of cynicism. A façade Oliver wears to protect himself from the pain of life but which he can never entirely convince himself of.
Ayoade has taken the old chestnut about each of us being the stars of the film of our life and played it out to its logical artistic extremes. “Submarine” is literally a film about Oliver, the one playing in his head all the time, analyzing each little movement and action and phrase. Sometimes Oliver is the hero of the piece, sometimes he is the villain, and many times he is swept along by the tide of events, not entirely certain where the plot is taking him.
“Submarine” also benefits from being extremely well composed from first time director Ayoade, boasting strong across the board performances from his many young actors and a visual style that will help even the most jaded of commercial moviegoers forget they’re looking at a fairly low-budget film. A stellar score from Arctic Monkey’s front man Alex Turner helps with that as well, blending British garage rock and British (sorry, Welsh) garage film together into a seamless whole.
The real proof of “Submarine’s” quality is not just how easily it does what it does, but how bad it makes everyone attempting the same thing and failing (and there are many of those) look. Hopefully Ayoade won’t get stuck in the rut of similar-minded filmmakers who have turned out to only have one story to tell, but for now he can keep his head high and above water. “Submarine” is a fantastic start.