(dir. Richard Ayoade)
Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) deadpans early on in Submarine, “The only way to get through life is to picture myself in an entirely different reality”. With cringing self-consciousness he imagines he is original, although he is actually an achingly average adolescent. His primary concerns are to protect his parents’ marriage and to lose his virginity.
Richard Ayoade directs a superbly self-aware film that knows what it wants and isn’t afraid to draw attention to how to get it. Oliver maintains a voice-over at pertinent points in the film, noting things like, “I wish life could be more like American soap operas – then when things got dramatic you could fade down and pick it up later.” When a dramatic event does present itself he sighs, “Sometimes I wish there was a film crew following my every move. At this rate I’ll only have enough budget for a zoom.” And indeed, there is a zoom shot. It’s painfully artistic but manages to be entertaining too.
Oliver’s parents (Lloyd and Jill) are excruciatingly embarrassing in the way that only parents of teenagers can be. They are played with compelling awfulness by Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins (whom I normally find extremely annoying – here she is pitched just right). Oliver spies on them and monitors their conjugal relations by their use of the dimmer switch in the bedroom.
When Graham Purvis (Paddy Considine with a ghastly Paul King mullet), an old flame of Jill’s, moves in next-door, Oliver fears for her fidelity, especially when she attends Graham’s new-age nonsense meetings and disappears with him into the back of a sign-painted black transit van. Her husband Lloyd, reacts with a dignified depression that only makes sense once you’ve left pretentious puberty behind.
Oliver doesn’t want to be a bully but if that’s what it takes to fit in at school (filmed with painful nostalgia at Bishop Gore High School in Swansea) and get the girl (the oh-so-cool pyromaniac Jordana Bevan – Yasmin Paige) then he’ll give it a go. He fancies himself as something of a hero in his duffel coat and considers the fact that he is roundly ridiculed to be the fault of his peers, not his affectations.
He tells Jordana “It might be nice to develop more mutual interests besides spitting and setting things on fire” and their tentative sexual encounters are reminiscent of every awkward experience you haven’t managed to eternally erase from your memory. He conducts a Super 8 eight footage of memory – capturing a grainy montage of ‘two weeks of love-making’.
Typically emotionally stunted and self-absorbed, when his parents threaten to split up all he can think of is how this will affect him. He is equally insensitive to Jordana’s troubles, and is simply annoyed that “in the Top Trumps of parental problems, cancer beats infidelity”. All this is played out against the sublime whimsy of Alex Turner’s (The Arctic Monkeys) music, including sample lyrics such as “You can leave off my lid and I won’t even lose my fizz” and “If you’re going to try and walk on water make sure you’re wearing comfortable shoes.”
I’m not quite sure in which era this film is meant to be set – sometime at the end of the last century at a guess. The clothes and hairstyles are early 80s; some of the cultural references are late 80s/ early 90s, and the playground argot (such as the use of the term ‘gay’ in a derogatory manner: ‘displays of emotion are gay’) is later again. Mind you, time loses all dimensions in South Wales so we are genuinely adrift.
The cast (young and adult) are superb and the acting is nuanced and intelligent. As the title suggests, there is much to negotiate beneath the seemingly placid surface, suspended in suburbia trying to decide whether to sink or swim. This is definitely better than your average film flotsam.