Director: Richard Ayoade
Starring: Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Sally Hawkins, Noah Taylor
In most films about teenagers, if the parents factor into the story at all, they appear as a force to be subverted, avoided, and manipulated, often as characters comically out-of-touch, rarely as characters with lives that exist beyond the periphery of those of their children. Richard Ayoade’s Submarine is a film about a teenager who is as invested in the lives of his parents as he is in his own, as concerned about the state of their marriage as he is about the state of his own romantic life. It’s an uncommonly intelligent film about what is, for many people, an uncommonly unintelligent and awkward period in life, and it’s a near-perfect feature film debut.
Submarine centres on Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), a teenager in Swansea in 1986 whose primary concerns are the apparently failing marriage of his parents, Jill (Sally Hawkins) and Lloyd (Noah Taylor), and his non-existent love life. He’s infatuated with Jordana (Yasmin Paige), a classmate who has just broken up with her boyfriend and decides to use Oliver as a means of making him jealous. This leads, first, to Oliver being beaten up by the ex-boyfriend, but, second, to Oliver becoming Jordana’s new boyfriend. Jordana’s aversion to anything remotely romantic is in conflict with Oliver’s somewhat idealistic view of the world, but the relationship succeeds in spite of itself – at least, until tragedy forces Oliver to deal with the reality of being in a relationship instead of the “idea” of being in one.
Meanwhile, things are amiss in the marriage of Jill and Lloyd, as the former seems to have one foot out the door, and the latter has fallen into a deep depression. Through his surveillance of his parents, Oliver comes to believe that the problem is rooted in next door neighbor Graham (Paddy Considine), a badly coiffed New Age guru. His suspicions are further confirmed when he learns that Jill dated Graham before she married Lloyd, and he sets out to push Lloyd out of his depression and into action to save his marriage. As the film moves towards its conclusion, Oliver comes to believe that he has to choose between keeping his own relationship together, or finding a way to keep his parents’ relationship together, leading to heartbreak but also to self-awareness and maturity.
Submarine is anchored by a wonderful performance from Roberts as Oliver, making him alternately ridiculous and soulful, horribly selfish and profoundly sensitive, and he's matched note for note by Paige, whose character begins the film seeming like a prototypical mean girl but takes on increasing complexity as the story carries on. Like Oliver, Jordana also finds herself thrust into the very adult problems facing her parents (very different problems than those faced by Oliver's family), but while Oliver's experiences make him want to pull away, Jordana's make her want to solidify the relationship, leading to plenty of conflict and angst between them which, despite being a movie about teenagers, never gets overplayed or descends to the level of melodrama. Their performances are supported by solid turns from Taylor and the always great Hawkins, who find just the right shadings between comedy and pathos.
Written and directed by Ayoade, Submarine unfolds in a novelistic way, divided into sections and narrated at various points by Oliver. It’s an often whimsical film, but it never crosses the line by becoming overly precious. Ayoade tells the story in a voice with enough ironic distance that Oliver is the hero of the story while also being recognized as a sometimes silly teenager. The screenplay is tightly written and subtle in its comedic beats, reinforced by Ayoade’s assured and confident direction. All in all, Submarine is an intelligent and delightful coming of age story.