This is Richard Ayoade’s debut feature-length film as a writer-director, previously having worked on mostly TV gigs (he directed Community’s Critical Film Studies episode after this film), a couple of shorts and directing the Arctic Monkeys at the Apollo concert documentary. And it shows he’s a guy with a helluva lot of promise, a director to watch after showing he has a very definite style in this picture, as well as showing he has a knack for crafting a dialogue that sounds like how a real teenager would actually talk. It’s not a perfect film, not at all, but as far as debuts go this one of 2011’s most impressive ones, it’s so delicate in how comically it shows the teenage angst, how it takes you by the hand and guides you along that you’ll be left craving for a new feature by the man.
What makes Submarine define its style in such a cool way, which may draw a Wes Anderson comparison or two, is the fact that Mr. Ayoade changes the present-day setting from the Joe Dunthorne novel he adapted to 1986, an era which he can heavily stylize and use to his advantage in crafting a very distinct aesthetic. I said it reminded me of Wes Anderson because you can just tell that Mr. Ayoade made this change in order to make this film all the more whimsical and quirky, to enable his characters to wear these vintage clothes and use polaroids and be into French cinema. I’m a huge Wes Anderson fan, and as such this worked tremendously well for me, with Craig Roberts’ Oliver Tate acting as Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fischer in Rushmore; I loved every minute of this.
Oliver is fifteen years old, and he has two objectives in life: 1) To do everything he can to save his parents’ crumbling marriage, no matter how much meddling is involved, and 2) To lose his virginity before he blows out his sixteenth candle. And Craig Roberts is such a great find as Oliver, embedding him with that self-importance that only teenagers seem to possess, he’s clever but he thinks he’s a genius, thinking of himself like too much of a sophisticated soul to go looking for sex in cheap ways, even though it’s all he thinks about and a quest he has put himself a deadline to complete. He targets one of his classmates, Jordana, who’s a pyromaniac and who seems to understand quite a lot about what goes on in the mind of an teenage boy, and it’s terrific to see how their relationship progresses; Yasmin Paige, the actress in charge of playing Jordana, being just as great a find as Mr. Roberts.
The quest to lose his virginity and learn about love and relationships is interwoven with that of getting his parents to stay together, which he does by monitoring their sex life, which he does by charting the position of the dimmer switch in their bedroom and by crafting sexy love letters allegedly from his mom (whom he believes to be having an affair with a New Age guy) to send to his dad. And it’s all so neatly told, you just get the sense that Mr. Ayoade has an incredible amount of love for the art of cinema itself; you get a visual nod to Truffaut, you get Oliver actually narrating how he wants his life to be shot and the camera following his instructions, you have certain fantasy parts of the film shot in Super 8 film, it’s all pretty damn awesome because of how greatly it meshes with the personality of Oliver and the overall tonality of the film, it never once feels forced but instead as a very hip and organic kind of transition for this film to take.
There will be people that won’t like the over-stylized doings of Mr. Ayoade, that’s for sure, just like Wes Anderson has a lot of detractors, but even if you don’t like the twee factor in and of itself, it actually makes a lot of sense for this film to be this way when you consider it’s an imagining of what’s going on in the mind of a sensitive and quite weird fifteen-year-old. Because that’s really what Submarine is, it’s a period in Oliver’s life seen squarely through the eyes of Oliver, and every other character presented to us is just the version of them that Oliver sees, so in the end how you respond to this film is entirely about how you respond to Oliver himself, since he’s all that really matters here. It’s like when you read The Catcher in the Rye and you either love or hate Holden because it’s his opinions and his viewpoint that drives the whole book, this is a similar kind of character, and, much like I love the J.D. Salinger novel, I love Submarine.
Submarine really is an incredibly confident debut from Richard Ayoade, a guy who’s such a promising director that it’s just astounding. There are a lot of stylistic trappings here but they’re all laid over a really neat emotional center to the story, one that’s anchored by a hugely likable performance from Craig Roberts. It’s a film about teenagers that’s seen in its totality through the eyes of one. For me that certainly resonated because I just stopped being a teenager four months ago, for older viewers I just urge you to remember the idealism of that time, to remember how you felt when grown-ups told you that certain experiences you had as a teenager that felt life-changing wouldn’t matter at all when you hit their age; do that and there’s no way you won’t fall in love with Submarine.