It's beautifully shot and features some good performances, and the movie succeeds as a cute teen love story with a few humorous scenes. But it's really got nothing new to offer and I often found myself looking at the clock. It's well made, but there's nothing here you haven't seen, and haven't seen better.
Richard Ayoade's directorial debut Submarine is so close to being a Wes Anderson film that all it's missing is the polish. By polish, I don't mean Ayoade's film is sloppily constructed or poorly shot, but unlike Anderson, who emphasizes heavily decorated sets, immaculate symmetry, and astute framing, Ayoade emphasizes a more natural and intimate style of filming. Ayoade works to emphasize character facial expressions, in addition to his characters becoming sole subjects of a scene as they discuss the film's events or narrate certain parts in a manner that breaks the fourth wall.
The result is a quaint comedy-drama that unfortunately succumbs to its identity crisis and its desire to try and find a path before it figures itself out, much like its main character, Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts). Oliver is a fifteen-year-old boy living in Swansea, with a crush on his cute but ordinary classmate Jordana (Yasmin Paige). The two wind up going out after Oliver's passes result in defeat on Jordana's behalf and acceptance after her own attempt to make her ex-boyfriend jealous failed. Oliver is also concerned with his parents' disintegrating marriage when he notices his father's (Noah Taylor) increasing disconnectedness and his mother's (Sally Hawkins) brewing relationship with a new-age guru (Paddy Considine) that she dated back in school.
Oliver is very demanding and blunt, with a desire to use people in his circles as pawns for his greater good without even really knowing it; he takes "having all his ducks in a row" to a new level. He's not necessarily evil, he's just never really been told "no" or been let down in his life until his relationship with Jordana begins going south beyond his control. His intents are not malicious, but his conception of boundaries leave a lot to be desired. Having said that, the relationship he crafts with Jordana throughout the course of the film is a precious one, as is much of the film (until heartbreak begins setting in, and Oliver begins writing notes to himself that will make anyone who has went through heartbreak shatter a bit inside).
Submarine is crafted in that indie movie light that emphasizes the quirky and the largely improbable or eccentric. This is the kind of film that requires your suspension of disbelief more often than its filmmakers would like to admit. Going back to Anderson, his films largely work because of the whimsical world they create. In films like The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom, we get the sense that the verisimilitude Anderson crafts is meant to exist in a fictional realm of reality, where things are unrealistically beautiful and painstakingly decorated, not exactly the world in which we are currently. Anderson is also an anomaly because he can do this without asserting the presence of the world he creates nor really emphasizing that we are leaving the world we live in to inhabit a new land.
Ayoade's biggest struggle is not really being sure how to capture Oliver's unpredictable behavior, and in turn, how to communicate its direction to the audience. Is this supposed to be a satire on the absurdity of coming of age films? Is this supposed to be an all-out parody, or sort of a "teens do the darnedest things" episode? Ayoade isn't exactly sure it seems, and as a result, neither am I. The Oliver character isn't grossly unlikable, but he's not a particularly strong or convincing protagonist, despite Roberts doing some strong work as an actor in terms of the copious amounts of dialog he needs to recite within the scenes. However, the monotone nature of the film lacks any kind of justification as to whether or not we're supposed to feel glum during the course of this film, or at least recognize the film channeling morose themes of love and early onset disillusionment.
When a film's intentions and themes are muddled, the only thing one can do is spitball, and that's what Submarine requires - a lot of spitballing and contemplating in terms of what it's trying to say and do. The film is heavily reminiscent of later works like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and The Perks of Being a Wallflower in that it belongs to the category of, what I call, "neo-coming of age," where films are bent on quirks, eccentricities, and heavily scripted dialog in the form of lengthy monologues and precocious characters to appeal to the kids who aren't as likely to speak first in class or completely go unnoticed all together. For a soul as quirky as Ayoade, who did some brilliant comedic work in the British Television show The IT Crowd, I would've expected, yes, a film with more polish and direction. The film's humorous moments and grin-worthy sequences only go so far before we realize that the circumvention we expect from a film is missing and traded for an endless game of connect the dots.
Starring: Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins, and Paddy Considine. Directed by: Richard Ayoade.