[This review was originally published on October 26th 2010 during Flixist’s London Film Festival coverage. It is being reprinted to coincide with the film’s UK release today]
Richard Ayoade’s debut as a film director marks a sea-change from his television work as geek-fro’d Moss on UK sitcom The IT Crowd. Submarine, based on a novel by Joe Dunthorne, is a small character-driven comedy, hardly the first indie coming-of-age story with low-key wit and a precocious lead monologuing in verbose platitudes, but with all trace of American optimism bled out until all that’s left is the British resignation that life is going to be difficult, so the best that can be hoped for is to find a bearable way of getting over its hurdles and having an occasional laugh along the way.
The film follows teenage schoolboy Oliver, who likes to think of himself as a hero to his peers and ingenious solver of his family’s problems but instead tends to end up over-thinking and making problems significantly more complex. While he’s negotiating a first crush on classmate Jordana Bevan, a budding pyromaniac with a fierce distaste for anything approaching romance, his parents’ marriage is being challenged by the appearance next door of a sexually-supercharged mystic who also happened to be his mother’s first crush.
Ayoade has a sharp eye for finding playground beauty in industrial grounds and grey-skied landscapes. Oliver’s juvenile eyes are still processing the world and find opportunity for exploration where adults only see desolation: broken fences make perfect cover to spy from, old bins and skips magnificent to watch explode after being packed with fireworks. Unlike the American take on the genre, where coming of age means starting on the path towards utopian ideals of love and ambition, Ayoade’s script takes Oliver from a state of young naivety (imagining his demise would cause a candlelit vigil across the country) toward understanding and dealing with the various pressures that come with moving into the adult world. This is not a place where childhood ends playing guitar on a beautiful lawn under the summer sun, but with the knowledge that while the years ahead will be tough and expecting perfection only leads to disappointment, appreciating what you’ve got and making the most of it is enough to make it all worthwhile: clouds may cover the sky, but at least the sun is still shining behind them. If there’s one distinctly un-British thing about the film, it’s how artfully shot the framing often is. Ayoade’s flair for dry wit is obvious, but perhaps more impressive are the rare signs in a director from these shores not afraid to test the big screen’s capability for capturing artful beauty.
Craig Roberts is appealingly deadpan in the lead, taking in every new twist of fate with the same look of round-eyed worry but too wary of showing vulnerability among his predatory schoolmates and quietly divided parents (engagingly played with straight-faced frustration by Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins) to show it. Oliver’s budding-but-never-quite-blossoming romance with Yasmine Paige’s Jordana hits all the contradictory notes of the first girlfriend experience, at once infuriating and infatuating, mysterious but magnificent. Paige projects a world-weariness and selfish streak that will bring back embarrassing memories for male viewers with adolescences spent trying to impress similarly tantalising girls, but her performance is held far enough back from parody that the vulnerabilities of youth still bubble beneath the surface. She and Roberts have perfectly synced comic timing, reaching an apex in the short but perfectly played scenes where Oliver is trying to set the mood for their first night together.
While coming to terms with the pressures of moving into the adult world is at the heart of what the film is trying to say, the middle section sees Oliver realise the scope of his tasks and the tone becomes significantly heavier. While this change is still significantly preferable to the usual shift into saccharine romance that most modern comedies take, it’s a difficult transition after the brisk humour of the opening act. There are still many excellent lines and strong performances from all the adults, with Paddy Considine having a lot of fun as a pretentious mystic, but no matter how well played the drama, the story’s initial lightness is hard not to miss. That may be down to how the innocence of childhood often feels like something worth pining for, but doesn’t make it any easier to experience in a cinema.
Apart from a few such misjudgments (the occasional deployment of meta humour feels out-of-place too), Ayoade displays a promising grasp of the cinematic language in his first feature. The humour is restrained and dry, the characters well observed and inhabited effortlessly by the young leads, and the cinematography finds often gorgeous perspectives on unassuming environments. Better yet, it marks the the first director to emerge from these shores since Edgar Wright who understands his craft and can capture a flavour of the country without resorting to the clichés so popular abroad. Submarine may travel under the radar, but you’d be a fool to miss it when it surfaces.