Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), a bright, morose 15-year-old in Swansea, Wales, subscribes to the misfit-genius belief of many teenagers: he thinks everyone is watching him and nobody understands him. So in the moments between getting bullied at school and deflecting his parents’ somewhat academic interest in his precarious emotions, Oliver finds solace in imagining the public reaction to his sudden death. TV reporters would be solemnly covering the candlelight vigils, panning across the gates strewn with commemorative garlands, interviewing the sobbing females — the whole Princess Diana panoply. And then: the resurrection. One night at school, a mysterious figure in a Harry Potter cloak would reveal himself as Oliver to a few of his awed acolytes (all girls). “Don’t ask how,” he’d whisper. “Just know that I’m more powerful than ever.”
In Submarine, Richard Ayoade’s ingratiating adaptation of Joe Dunthorne’s 2008 novel, Oliver is not so much a teen as Everyteen — every teen, that is, who will grow up to write a novel about his aggrieved adolescence. Self-consciousness comes with the territory; self-awareness comes later. Submarine‘s neat trick is to show both states simultaneously. The movie lives inside Oliver’s roiling soul while finding the human comedy in his desperation. From either aspect, it’s a cagey delight, and an imposing feature directorial debut for one of Britain’s TV stalwarts.
Whether or not Ayoade, who’ll be 34 this month, endured Oliver’s ordeals as a 15-year-old, he soon flourished. Born of a Nigerian father and a Norwegian mother, he read law at Cambridge and served as president of the famed Footlights Dramatic Club. (The Daily Show‘s John Oliver was vice president.) He’s best known to Brit TV watchers as Maurice Moss, the brilliantly maladroit techie on The IT Crowd. Ayoade has directed music videos for Arctic Monkeys, whose album titles (Favorite Worst Nightmare and Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not) could serve as slogans for Oliver, and whose front man, Alex Turner, composed the plaintive songs that run through Oliver’s head.
The kid has trouble at school and at home. In class, while the boy sitting behind him responds to a teacher’s challenge to define self-discovery by saying, “Havin’ a wank, sir?”, Oliver pines for the vixenish Jordana (Yasmin Paige), whose young mind holds thousands of years of womanly guile and taunt. Jordana will let him creep into her affections in part for sport, in part to assuage her depression over her mother’s brain tumor. Things aren’t much jollier chez Tate, where Oliver’s father Lloyd (Noah Taylor) and mother Jill (Sally Hawkins) measure their lives in prim chat parenthesized by tense stretches of silence. Oliver, who keeps tabs on their arid relationship by making “a routine search of my parents’ bedroom,” is concerned that the two haven’t made love in months — and that Jill has rekindled an old flame in the egregious person of Graham (Paddy Considine), a former pop singer and current “mystic Ninja,” who’s moved in across the way. (The movie is not nearly so grim as this précis.)
Before he can suture a family crisis, Oliver must attend to his own urgent education. Assuming that his personality will be the sum of his affectations, he tries smoking a pipe, “listening to French crooners” and scanning the dictionary for obscure words that speak to his condition. (Today’s entry: flagitious — shamefully wicked.) He tries the same tactic on Jordana, hoping for a communion of souls by taking her to the silent French film The Passion of Joan of Arc on their first date and giving her copies of Nietzsche and The Catcher in the Rye, as if this were the last day of school and he a stern teacher with a summer reading list.
Ayoade is fitfully attentive to the unerring marksmanship of teen cruelty. Early in the film, to keep his classmates from torturing him, and to be near Jordana, Oliver joins a bullying party whose victim is the heavyset Zoe (Lily McCann). She is humiliated, blames Oliver and leaves school; but his remorse is trumped by having passed Jordana’s hazing test. As his voice-over narration tells us, “I mustn’t let my principles stand in the way of progress.” A coming-of-age drama in the Hollywood humanist style would ordain that Oliver eventually throw over Jordana to apologize to and reconcile with Zoe (who’s hefty but also pretty). Not here; for there’s a bit of Oliver that is a budding Joe Lampton, the ambitious schemer played by Laurence Harvey in the 1959 Brit semi-classic Room at the Top. (In the Dunthorne book, Oliver thinks he can ease Jordana’s depression over her mother’s illness if instead she were to mourn for her beloved pet — so he kills the dog. That poochicide is missing from the film.)
As faithful as he is, in his fashion, to the novel, Ayoade knows he’s making a movie, and so turns Submarine into a compendium of coming-of-age films. “Sometimes I wish there were a camera crew following my every move,” Oliver says, and Ayoade treats the viewer to the boy’s own imagined super-8 masterpiece, an Jordanaian idyll called Two Weeks of Love. (Are you listening, J.J. Abrams?) Oliver imagines that one fantasy interlude would end with a sweeping tracking shot, then realizes his movie could afford only a zoom shot. Ayoade’s camera obligingly zooms in.
By craftily lodging the film in no particular decade (the book is set in the 1980s), Ayoade can riffle any number of teen-movie archetypes. His hero could be called a Welsh median between John Hughes’ anguished midwesterners and François Truffaut’s comically solemn Antoine Doinel. Oliver also has a poster of 60s French heartthrob Alain Delon hanging in his bedroom. But with Oliver’s Beatles bowl haircut and several side trips into fanciful music videos, the movie in its more larkish moments references Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night from 1964 and the director’s next film, the Zeitgeisty romantic comedy The Knack…and How to Get It. Those are two excellent models, from which Ayoade draws well and selectively.
In this Lester light, Oliver could be the young John Lennon, and Jordana the cheeky Rita Tushingham from The Knack. With or without cinematic predecessors, Roberts (who also looks like a teen James McAvoy) and Paige (star of the Doctor Who BBC spinoff The Sarah Jane Adventures) slip sinuously into their roles. For all we know, they are whom they play: the love-struck obsessive and his imperious seductress. The adult actors are also fine, though the film forfeits a smidge of its charm and propulsive force once Oliver struggles to become his family’s savior.
Most of the rest is pure, awkward bliss. Anyone who has been a teenager, or secretly still is, will find deft self-portraiture when taking a ride on this flagitiously funny Submarine.