“This is the moment where you leave him and come with me.” Oliver Tate’s (Craig Roberts) naive and idealistic (mis)understanding of life is personified in this hilariously awkward address to high school flame Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige); and it’s a sentence that encapsulates Submarine. An offbeat, quirky, trials of adolescence movie that channels narrative, thematic and aesthetic elements of the French New Wave and American Indie to conjure something that feels extraordinarily British. From its bleak and abandoned yet romantic industrial estates to its drab, cold classrooms and playgrounds here’s a film that’s filled with British period style without ever feeling purposefully stylish.
Debut director Richard Ayoade (best known for playing Moss in the IT Crowd but perhaps more appropriately here identifiable as the scribbler behind Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace) is a TV comedy veteran. What’s clear from Submarine however is that Ayoade is a committed cinephile and Submarine attests to this. It’s a love letter to the history of the medium. From posters that evoke films from the nouvelle vague to striking red fade out shots – that can only be inspired by Bergman’s Cries and Whispers – this is a director who is evidently pouring his own passion for films, albeit sometimes overwhelmingly, into his own creation.
The film follows the intellectually precocious but socially inert Oliver; the kind of boy that calculatingly rationalises and plans bullying to increase his own social calibre, and believes his to-ings and fro-ings to be motion picture worthy. Oliver’s attempts to navigate the hazards of young life lead him into a courtship with Jordana, a socially equal classmate whose aloof temperament and tendencies towards blackmail conceal a vulnerable and fractured interior. Their burgeoning relationship unfolds tentatively just as Oliver’s parents’, Lloyd (Noah Taylor) and Jill (Sally Hawkins), reticent relationship crumbles still further with the arrival of Jill’s high school sweetheart cum new age lifestyle guru Graham Purvis (Paddy Considine).
Much like Quillévéré’s Love Like Poison this juxtaposition and favourable lens on adolescence reveals it to be a stage of life with special value to its directors. An almost magical netherworld set apart from the otherwise linear progression of age where experiences are to be remembered and remembered vividly. But it also exposes the sincere, and often ignorant, ways of tackling problems that appear at this time. Ayoade and by extension Oliver separates his journey into distinct parts, complete with chapter headings, that illustrate Oliver’s attempt to rationalise and overcome each battle with life one by one. The truth as he learns however is that life is a melting pot of conflicts and struggles of which delineation is nigh impossible and humble acceptance for one’s own limited ability to be in control is necessary. As such Oliver’s chapter headings become defunct by Submarine’s end, obscured by and replaced with an acceptance of the world and its uncontrollableness.
Immediately on entering the world of Submarine, we’re treated to a voiceover that characterises the narcissistic and oddly relatable Oliver; the notion that the only reason people get out of bed in the morning is because they think they’re special. As we’re told this Oliver’s very much out of bed and already staring profoundly through a window. It’s a succinct introduction and necessarily so as Ayoade’s film is packed with the minutiae of adolescence life, while successfully portraying it correctly as the exponential importance that it feels. And it is through Oliver’s blisteringly subjective lens that we understand the characters and the world around him – his parents haven’t had sex in six months because Oliver’s been recording the brightness of their bedroom light. That is except for Jordana, the foil to Oliver’s ceaseless delusion and self-absorbedness.
Ayoade takes a risk with his leads characterisation. Proto Goths that burn each other’s leg hair and voluntarily hang out in areas tramps fear to tred; as well as reciting Nietzsche and Shakespeare before seeing old obscure movies, all the while in trademark individualistic duffel coats. However what becomes apparent is that Submarine’s not so much about Oliver and Jordana as it is about the certain stage they’re living through. And it’s this stage, conveyed with such evident heartfelt enthusiasm from Ayoade and his leads, coupled with the free feeling playfulness in elements of camerawork and imagery that ultimately wins over any alienation one might feel on introduction to the characters.
It’s testament to the strength of this feature that when reviewing it there’s a barely repressible urge to describe many of its fantastic scenes. Oliver’s early imagining of the reaction that might meet news of his death of silent vigils (around the country) and weeping schoolgirls is so pinpoint accurate in its exposure of our own skewed self-perceptions at that age it’s hard to know whether to laugh uncontrollably or hang your head in shame. And a final coda of Oliver living out his fantasy of discovering Jordana on the beach is undeniably a thing of quiet and powerful beauty. Showing as it does Oliver and Jordana walking piecemeal into an unsure and unknown ocean whose waves beat against their legs, it is wonderfully and subtly kindling memories of a time when nothing in the world seemed beyond the strength of a bond forged in the fires of first time experiences. That time when you could take anything life throws at you, together.
Indeed the strongest resonance of Submarine is its pitch perfect capturing of that ephemeral and beautiful moment of adolescence in which hope, naivety and a lack of perspective collide to form a suspension of reality through young love. Ayoade evokes charming and cherished memories drenched in nostalgia that overcome the slightly too cool for school characterisation of its leads to create something at once whimsical and poignant. Submarine ascends to status alongside other coming of age greats that transports the viewer back to that specific bubble of youth were intense happiness can lead to a zealously introverted relationship.
With the title of the film directly representative of its own subtext it wears its profundity on its sleeve. The notion that when we are young the difference between our self perception and the world’s perception of us can be quite distinct; and that there’s a clear disparity between the way we see the world and the way the world really is. Or that inner part of us (sometimes called a soul) that we rarely let come to the surface for fear of it becoming becalmed. As Ayoade conveys we all have feelings and thoughts that go under the radar, that travel below our broadcasts, deeply personal and closed to all but those that have taken the effort and risk of diving down to unearth them. In spite of – perhaps even because of – these uncertainties Submarine finishes in a wonderfully hopeful and infectious fashion.
Submarine is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 1st August