Adapted from Joe Dunthorne’s 2008 novel, ‘Submarine’ is a retro coming-of-age tale about a teenage boy shell-shocked by everyday life in 1980s Wales. This is the story of Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), a schoolboy whose life is a movie in his head, which explains why his parents, played brilliantly by Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins, are such impenetrable but telling caricatures, weighed down by the hang-ups and deficiencies Oliver affords them.
This unhappy, stiff-backed couple haven’t had sex for seven months, Oliver tells us, and he only knows this because the dimmer switch in their bedroom hasn’t been set to a telling, in-the-mood level for just that long. The meat of the film – and its bittersweet, beating heart – is an awkward romance between Oliver and Jordana (Yasmin Paige), a guarded, knowing girl with a biting wit who wears a ‘Don’t Look Now’ red duffle coat, carries a similar dodgy fringe and whose own family problems are revealed as gradually as she gives herself over to Oliver. Their pairing is cutting and cute.
We hear Oliver in voiceover perhaps more than we hear him in the flesh and it’s these thoughts which inspire Ayoade’s direction. A neurotic and smart boy, Oliver over-imagines his death as a series of flash-forwards of fellow pupils mourning his passing. He talks of zooms and crane shots and when a bullied peer falls into a pond he observes the horror in freeze frame and commentates on the action.
The storytelling style which Ayoade lunges for with uncynical reverence and a cinephile’s passion (and maybe a little over randily at times – how many times can you evoke the final shot on the beach in ‘The 400 Blows’?) is a holy trinity of the French new wave, mannered American indies of the late ’90s and superior British domestic comedy. It’s a winning combination which sees sparks of imagination flying from most scenes. The shadow of 1960s French cinema falls most heavily over the film. Even the colour and type of the opening credits scream ‘Godard!’. It’s a fast-moving film and very much a director’s piece. There are jump cuts, flashes back and forwards, imaginary episodes and chapter headings. Nothing stays still for long and actors are often seen in silence. Maybe that’s why Paddy Considine’s exaggerated turn as Oliver’s loony neighbour, a spiritual life coach, feels exuberant and out of place.
‘Submarine’ is total first-person cinema and Ayoade runs with it to stress that other people are both intriguing and unknowable. We’re told that Oliver’s dad, an expert in fish, once had an Open University TV show called ‘Mysteries of the Deep’. It’s those same mysteries on dull, everyday dry land with which ‘Submarine’ has so much fun.