Sly teen angst comedy ‘Submarine’ runs out of air
Teen angst is nothing new at the movies, and every micro-generation gets its own version. The latest entry in the why-must-I-be-a-teenager-in-love sweepstakes is Submarine, an often slyly deadpan teen comedy from the chilly seacoast of Swansea, Wales. Laced with wit and sarcasm, it takes its 15-year-old, lovestruck protagonist almost as seriously as he takes himself, although served up with a slice of wry. But while the film gets off to a smart start, it never really gets anywhere, so blinkered by the character’s self-absorption that the whole narrative begins to feel claustrophobic.
The film is adapted from the 2008 Joe Dunthorne novel by writer-director Richard Ayoade, a stand-up comedian who has a facility for rapid-fire repartee. Rising young Welsh actor Craig Roberts stars as Oliver Tate.
Gazing out from under his Beatle bangs with noncommittal wariness, Oliver longs for Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige), a pint-sized femme fatale with a Louise Brooks bob and a red hooded car coat. (“She’s moderately unpopular,” he observes, “which makes the two of us getting together more likely.”) Devising strategies to get close to Jordana occupy most of Oliver’s time until Fate intervenes: dumped by her boyfriend, she uses Oliver to get back at her ex, and they become sort of together, for awhile.
Oliver shares an uncertain home life with his parents, his passive, marine biologist father (the always reliable Noah Taylor), and his prim, disappointed mum (Sally Hawkins), once a wannabe actress now stuck in a boring clerical job. The spark has all but gone out in their marriage; Oliver knows this because he keeps scrupulous tabs on how often they have sex, along with frequent “routine surveillance” missions into their bedroom. Complicating things is new next-door neighbor, Graham Purvis (the great Paddy Considine), an aura-reading, New Age snake-oil salesman with a slew of self-help DVDs and a really bad mullet haircut, who may be making the moves on Mum.
As he revels in his relationship with Jordana (a verb I use advisedly, since this kid never, ever cracks a smile), Oliver must also cope with evidence that romances don’t always work out, possible parental infidelity, and a subplot involving cancer (sobering until it’s no longer needed, when it’s simply dismissed). Through it all, he bonds with his dad, who admits to being depressed since he was Oliver’s age, which feels like “being underwater.” The drowning metaphor is all over this movie, from a consideration that no ultrasound technology can communicate what another person is feeling, to the large, bubbling aquarium installed in the wall high above the Tate family kitchen table. Pretty soon, we’re all gasping for air.
There are moments. It’s pretty hilarious when Oliver indulges himself in every kid’s fantasy of the global grief that would ensue if he suddenly died. (On the other hand, a ridiculous attempted tryst with Jordana involving champagne in a silver bucket, wine in a box, and shrimp, should have been presented as a fantasy; no way could this kid obtain these things in real life.) But the big trouble is, as hard as he tries to rationalize his actions, Oliver often acts like a jerk. Early on, to attract Jordana’s attention, he leads a bunch of kids in bullying an overweight girl in their class. The consequences are humiliating, and—in the film’s most genuine moment—Oliver is the only one who feels bad about it. Had this plotline been pursued, the movie would be more interesting. But the incident is dismissed with a brief, jokey payoff, and the bullied girl (and all Oliver might have learned from her) disappear from the story.
As the story loses momentum, the film runs out of steam. To fall into the coming-of-age category, it’s protagonist should actually evolve in some way, and move on. Sadly, this does not happen to Oliver. For all of his self-regard, and the intensity of his self-scrutiny, he ends up pretty much in the same place he started out, plot-wise and emotionally, in a final fade-out meant to be rife with possibilities, but which, in fact, feels like a major step backward. It’s hard to cheer on somebody who so stubbornly refuses to learn from his mistakes.
★★1/2 (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Craig Roberts, Noah Taylor, Paddy Considine, and Sally Hawkins. Written and directed by Richard Ayoade. From the novel by Joe Dunthorne. A Weinstein Company release. Rated R. 97 minutes.