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Richard Ayoade is renowned for being a tight-lipped contrarian and the last man you’d ever want to see if you intended to conduct an emotional interview. You might remember him as the nerd in, well, everything.
Fortunately he’s now managed to break free from constantly being typecast as that nasally eccentric, having stomped the wonky glasses of his nerd persona and delivered a directorial debut that’s at once both disarming and unfailingly clever.
‘Submarine’ is a dark coming-of-age story about an unusual child, Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), who floats submerged in the rising water of hormonal confusion. It’s based on Joe Dunthorne’s novel of the same name, which was acclaimed for its cutting bildungsroman narrative – similarly told from Oliver’s perspective as he pits his wit and charm against the mysterious adult world – and deft incisions that proved we’re all still children, just a little bigger.
Oliver is a curious 15 year-old chained to the small-town drear of Swansea, which might fair better on a tourist board, although the film does what it can to slap drab shades of grey on the setting and cement a tyrannical sky that hangs like a burden overhead. Oliver is a boy trapped in a place he doesn’t quite understand and in that sense he’s an outsider.
He whiles his hours away checking his parents’ dimmer to see if they’ve been having sex or wandering off into intricate fantasies. Most children would submit to the tedium of this far-flung existence, but Oliver is saved by his intelligence – that and his elaborate, all-or-nothing courtship of Jordana (Yasmin Paige), a fledgling nihilist with a penchant for pyromania.
After an odd first meeting, during which Jordana takes several pictures to show her ex, their relationship gains authentic warmth. Jordana is another outcast, who’s also fairly unpopular so Oliver thinks that means she’s in his league. That’s one example of how wonderfully flawed and self-regarding Oliver is. I think his inadequacies and confused bursts of cruelty comprise a salient reason for why this film triumphs over the mimicry of some of those other, more contrived coming-of-age yarns.
‘Submarine’ also gives us a reminder of the crude rankings and myriad characters that constructed school-yard politics. There’s one particularly hilarious survival tip and, from my own fairly recent (although factually dissimilar) experiences, I can attest this observation – if you do something wildly embarrassing, like, say, if you’re a budding exhibitionist and you pull your pants down to let out a glorious fart, but accidently follow through, then, according to the film, the only way to avoid being ripped apart by your peers is by claiming that act. To exemplify this we’re shown the image of a student pointing at his work, his trousers wrapped around his ankles, as the encircling students applaud him. It’s a great, perceptive and beautifully twisted moment in the film.
Hidden in the depths of his puffed-up duffel coat, Oliver makes no attempt at hiding. He isn’t a moral, kind kid and he also isn’t above bullying a fat girl to impress Jordana. However their weirdness intertwines when they get together and discover that the chaos suddenly dissipates around them. It’s a much-needed warm centre that’s very touching and sanative, especially when we’re surrounded by suicidal fathers and mothers who give out hand-jobs in the backs of vans.
As far as I can remember school is brutal sometimes and so is puberty, but it can also be an incredibly fun part of your life, if you embrace it. Fortunately Oliver’s wit means we aren’t sapped of all that reckless enjoyment, even if the film is mired, for the most part, in the sludge of a recurring everyday that ultimately leaves you rooting for Oliver and celebrating his escape.
Jordana is a tonal antidote to the repetitive mechanisms of Oliver’s mind. She plucks Oliver from a cycle of dull analytical routines and the gaping abyss of endless logic he might’ve otherwise descended into.
There’s also a plethora of downbeat yet invariably interesting sub-characters. Oliver’s father, Lloyd (Noah Taylor), suffers from depression, and is slowly losing Oliver’s mother, Jill (Sally Hawkins), to new-age guru Graham (Paddy Considine), much to the chagrin of young Oliver who immediately became suspicious of the self-styled guru’s flirtations.
Indeed the story is pretty commonplace, but it unfolds with consistent deadpan irony and charm, so as never to seem banal. Ayoade also utilises freeze-frame character introductions and other self-orientated techniques that give the narrative a polished sheen.
While some might argue this detracts from the films overall authenticity, its actually so seamless that I’d say Ayoade was wise to use these artistic liberties. The film is a comedy after all and flourishes of clever detraction and digression are needed to swerve between the potholes of melancholy, so carelessly strewn across the narrative.
It was always apparent that Ayoade was a fierce wit with a mind suited for the far-out Boosh-world. But even his most avid supporters must’ve been surprised by the confidence and panache he brought to this debut. Indeed, after being given the helm of a British feature, Ayoade has proven himself to be an honest and bold director.
‘Submarine’ offers something that few teen comedies have been able to convey. It isn’t marred by adult interpretations of childhood, which are so often muddied by matured sensibilities or overpowering nostalgia. It’s not overly focused on sex, or idealism either, nor does it seem laden with affections whilst striving to appear cool. Instead it gives us a dose of adolescent truth in all its weird, awkward and inexplicable glory. It also gives us a kind of trial-and-error love story about two outcasts learning how to be with each other.