To say the least, Richard Ayoade’s Submarine is both dark and quirky. It narrates the adolescence of Oliver Tate, an introverted, semi-neurotic 15 year-old in the Welsh seaside city of Swansea. The film begins with him meeting classmate Jordana Bevan; in a scene underneath a railroad bridge, the two fall in love as rapidly as the polaroid selfies they take of themselves kissing develop. In classic coming-of-age style, a honeymoon period ensues across beautifully abandoned beaches and industrial wastelands.
However, we quickly discover that all is not well in Oliver’s world. Through persistent spying, he knows his parents haven’t had sex for seven months—his mousy marine biologist father Lloyd struggles with depression, while his mother Jill flirts with Graham, an old flame and new age guru who’s moved next door. While testing the waters to see if he can confide in Jordana about his parents’ marital troubles, Oliver learns that her mother has a potentially fatal brain tumor. Suffice to say, this is not a happy-go-lucky film.
The film proceeds to document Oliver’s attempts to grapple with these problems amidst his adolescent explorations with Jordana. Adult tribulations and youthful stumbling both mirror and clash with each other, opposing yet complementary currents that eventually meld into one as the film progresses. On this voyage, Oliver’s world flows into his parents’, reflecting a growing but still incomplete sense of maturity.
In Submarine, adolescent idealism becomes heartbroken melancholy, which then becomes ambiguous acceptance. While that may sound rather drab, the film’s execution is anything but. Ayoade could very well be Wes Anderson in both plot and technique; he deploys superb, well-composed cinematography complete with eccentricities like zooms, titlecards, and faux-filmreels. Wistful original songs by Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner play between accordion-infused instrumental motifs to create a playful, indie-esque soundscape. Combining all that with its quirky, introspective characters, Submarine could very well be another Moonrise Kingdom.
With that said, in some senses Submarine still fits a certain mold. Besides Moonrise Kingdom are films like Jeffrey Blitz’s Rocket Science, which also tell coming-of-age stories with idiosyncratic characters, youthful romance, and parental struggles. Sometimes Submarine seems like it’s trying a bit too hard to fit this format; for instance, in one scene Oliver suddenly hands Jordana copies of Shakespeare, Nietzsche, and Catcher in the Rye and waxes about their merits. Nevertheless, for the most part the film strays from cliches, and its overriding maritime metaphor is well-constructed, consistent, and poignant.
For Wes Anderson buffs or other quirk-desiring viewers, Submarine is a sure hit. Those looking for something saccharine should stay away though, for this is not your classic delightful teenage rom-com. Rather, Submarine is a film which swims deep into a sea of meaning and is crushed by the pressures below into something that shines.
Submarine—United Kingdom/United States. Directed by Richard Ayoade. First released September 2010. Running time 1hr 37min. Starring Noah Taylor, Paddy Considine, Craig Roberts, Yasmin Page, and Sally Hawkins.