By Myriam Ghattas
British director Richard Ayoade’s debut film for the big screen, “Submarine” (2010) tells the tale of Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), a 15-year-old kid with run-of-the-mill teenage concerns: the conquest, and safekeeping, of a girlfriend, Jordana (Yasmin Paige), and the preservation of a healthy relationship between his parents, Jill Tate (Sally Hawkins of “Happy-Go-Lucky”) and Llyod Tate (Noah Taylor).
Oliver’s aspirations may seem naturally straightforward yet he does encounter many difficulties in sorting them out. As he imagines directing his own life, with the omniscience of a God-like figure, he is more often than not confronted with a harsh contrasting reality, which he struggles with but often fails to control.
Thus, in order to get closer to Jordana, he must first make peace with her pyromania tendencies and anger. When he finally wins her heart, he soon faces the bigger challenge of her serious family situation while striving to figure out the appropriate manner by means of which he may retain his self-proclaimed status of best boyfriend in the world.
On the home front, things are far from stable. Where once it was easy for Oliver to assess the health of his parents’ marriage at the flick of a switch, the arrival of a new neighbor, Graham Purvis (Paddy Considine), sends his world tumbling into an unforeseen and unwelcome direction. Not only was his parents’ relationship already in a rough patch before the new arrival, Oliver soon discovers that Purvis was an old flame of his mother’s. To make matters worse, in trying to assess his father’s chances against his new rival, Oliver is forced to concede that the former’s expertise in the ways of the fish leaves much to be desired when compared to the latter’s appeal as a new-age type mystic guru.
Paige describes the conundrums portrayed in the films succinctly when she speaks of her own character, “I think she’s just kind of an average normal young girl who kind of…, as all teenagers do, has a family situation that is a lot more grown up than she is.”
“Submarine” is an adaptation of a best-selling novel of the same name by Joe Dunthorne. When asked whether he had tried to remain faithful to the book, Ayoade, who cites French filmmaker Louis Malle as a source of inspiration, described his project as running parallel, rather than being a direct translation of, the literary work. Ayoade preserves the first person perspective of the book using voice-over narrative and fantasy sequences to imbue his film with Oliver’s state of mind.
The film is a quirky comedy that, like its main character, wants to be taken seriously. In an ingenious manner, Ayoade — one of the stars of British hit comedy “The IT Crowd” — manages to depict the ways of adolescence, understandable and easily related-to universally, in a dead serious tone that can only add hilarity to the unraveling real-life situations.
In “Submarine,” style prevails over story. As is oftentimes noticeable with music-directors turned filmmakers, Aoyade, who previously directed videos for rock group Arctic Monkeys, creates a consistent visual tableau and manages to fit his cast, crew and locations all into the same — in this case vintage — mold. This stylization invades the very writing of the characters, so much so that the spectator may feel manipulated and must contend with characters that are often jittery and one-dimensional.
This does not detract from the fact that the movie offers solid performances across the board. The casting is spot-on and the delivery by the actors, both main and supporting, brings all the life to an otherwise somewhat drab and boring film.
The soundtrack, provided by Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys, underlines the poetic narrative, although at moments it unnecessarily overwhelms it.
Two of the most refreshing scenes in the film occur when Oliver exposes his vulnerability in reaching out to those who matter to him. The first time occurs when Oliver suspends his unsuccessful attempts at controlling his life and has a heart-to-heart conversation with Tate Sr. at a particularly dismal moment in both their lives. The second occurs when Oliver throws all caution to the wind and pours his heart out to Jordana in front of a bunch of critically-observing classmates. In both instances, the voice-over narrative gives way to a more direct form of communication, allowing the spectator to get closer to the characters and their stories.
Richard Ayoade’s directorial debut is hip, desaturated and music-driven at times. For all these reasons, it may seem a tad weak and derivative in its structure and approach compared to a number of prior and more superior films such as Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Amélie” (2001). Yet it does possess an undeniable quality that makes it a shame to overlook. Strewn throughout are several moments as well as dialogue exchanges of true comedic brilliance, in the typically dry British humor. Possibly, the greatest accomplishment of the film is the revelation of an incredible talent in the young Craig Roberts.
“Submarine” is screening as part of the 4th European Film Panorama on Wednesday, Nov. 23 and Tuesday, Nov. 29 at Galaxy cinema and on Thursday, Nov. 24 at Stars cinema.
Director Richard Ayoade