There's an age at which the fantasies of youth drain away and what we're left with is cold, wet reality. To a great extent, Richard Ayoade's directorial debut, Submarine is completely wrapped up in one person's struggle to hang onto the fantasy after having caught a glimpse of the dour reality. That individual is Oliver (Craig Roberts), our protagonist in a film that often comes off like a thematic successor to Wes Anderson's Rushmore cross-pollinated with the love child of Hal Ashby and the French New Wave (imagine Truffaut's characterizations meshed with the editing strategies of Godard's first films).
What this looks like in practice is a film that shifts seamlessly from the whimsy-driven heights of Oliver's fertile imagination to the harsh truth of living with parents (Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor) on the edge of separation. Ayoade cleverly uses the parental strife as a comparative device held up against Oliver's own budding relationship with a classmate named Jordana (Yasmin Paige); the latter being the primary focus, while the former provides the context for our young hero's romantic missteps.
And Oliver makes mistakes aplenty...a refreshing amount of them, actually. As a result, the plot line dodges becoming a completely standard exercise in boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back mechanics, precisely because of how realistic Oliver's missteps appear in a movie that repeatedly darts in and out of the actual. This is one confused kid and the film's structural looseness ably reflects Oliver's shambolic thought process, both literally via voice over and in the busy flow of the onscreen action.
Given that this is his first feature, it's tempting to label Ayoade a neglected genius who has arrived fully-formed on the scene. But, as an actor and writer, he's been kicking around the biz for some time now. Fans of British tv have likely come across his work on The IT Crowd, The Mighty Boosh, Snuff Box, etc. He's also racked up more than a handful of directing credits for television, including "Critical Film Studies," a strong candidate for the best episode of NBC's Community.
It doesn't take long to discern that Ayoade's been waiting to sink his teeth into something with a bit more scope than sitcoms can offer. And stretch out, he does. This is a mature work that still makes plenty of room for non sequiturs and a woozy imbalance, projecting the uncertainty of youth.
That's not to say that Submarine is a perfect film, mind you. It's a coming of age story and we've seen a lot of these elements played out on screen before. It's also yet another display of adolescent male psychology, which had me wondering how the film might play out if it were more invested in Jordana's point of view...or if it were her story altogether. Gender-bias and familiarity aside, it is the spark with which these well-worn bits are assembled that make Submarine fresh and worth recommending.
I thought I'd go ahead and link a couple of clips from Ayoade's other work.
Here's a bit from The IT Crowd:
Ayoade on The Mighty Boosh:
And, finally, Part 1 of 2 of Ayoade's episode of Community (fans of My Dinner With Andre and Pulp Fiction need to see this):