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Submarine is in theaters from June 10

Max Fischer meets Billy Liar in this enjoyable but bittersweet Bildungsroman directed by first-timer Richard Ayoade from the book by Joe Dunthorne.


Why are submarines such a signifier of sadness?  In the 1950s, “we’re going to watch the submarine races” was a euphemism for taking your girl to make out by the water.  However, I can’t hear the word without hearing the song by Adorable, with Piotr Fijalkowski singing, “Though your submarine is out of sight; still you’re haunting me like the harbour lights.” Even the relentlessly upbeat Drums sing “put me in the submarine and push it into the sea; let it sink down, down, down,” in their Wake-inspired take on underwater aquatic conveyances.

Richard Ayoade’s film (based on the book of the same title by Joe Dunthorne) uses both connotations of the word –the melancholy and isolation of being underwater, as well as the pursuit of kissing girls by the beach – in his extraordinary debut film.

You might be familiar with Ayoade (particularly if you’re an Anglophile) as Maurice in the IT Crowd or as Saboo in the Mighty Boosh, warning about the crunch or calling Fleetwood Mac “bullshit munchers.”  Or, if Brit-Com is not your thing, perhaps you know his fantastically Wes Anderson-esque video for Vampire Weekend.

This latter reference serves as a more telling guidepost for the style Ayoade uses in Submarine, from the all-caps Futura font title cards that divide the film into its chapters to the focus on an immature but compelling male lead.  That male lead is an over-intellectualized and under-socialized 15-year-old named Oliver Tate (played with wit and intensity by Craig Roberts).  But to call Tate a Welsh Max Fischer is to do him a disservice – he’s closer to a hyper-intellectual character out of a classic of the British New Wave.  More on that later.

Most of the film is carried by the quiet figure and brilliant imagination of Tate combined with the restless visual wit of Ayoade, who uses all manner of cinematic tricks (early in the movie, he freezes a scene to show the waiting catastrophe, and allowing Oliver to get a full 360-degree view of the impending the disaster before the scene resumes) and lush, gorgeous cinematography to draw the audience in to the universe he has created.  Oliver is our narrator and tour guide, and his ability to imbue his surroundings with a quest for deeper meaning, or at least the semblance of profundity, provides the often-hilarious hook that carries us along.

Oliver is completely and blissfully self-centered and self-confident, utterly convinced of his ability to address any situation, with a wit, poise and confidence that belies his young age – right up until the point where he comprehensively fails.  He is, in a word, immature. He imagines his own death and dreams it out to the point of absurdity – weeping crowds gathering to mourn his death – until his last-minute resurrection and the adulation that follows.  It is the specter of a very real death that provides the centerpiece of the film and the turning point for the main characters.

We are meant to be wholly won over by the fantasy world Oliver creates, but like Billy Liar (JUST like Billy Liar, I should add), the fantasy work he inhabits is an immature and irresponsible (if entertaining) escape.  He still he must deal with the increasingly complicated and sticky situations in real life.  And, like in that classic of the British New Wave, he is faced with a crisis that involves a hospital and a girl and the choice he must make.

Submarine seems to be set in 1985, though Ayoade leaves that just vague enough to be any time between 1970 and 1995 (the lack of cell phones is a dead give-away that it can’t be today).  The set design of the school and the Tate and Bevan households deliberately evokes that stale 1970s interior design of washed-out colors and burnt umber appliances I know so well from my own childhood.  Big, click-knob cassette players and VCRs also make prominent appearances in the film, reinforcing the feeling of the pre-internet age.  But the cinematography finds beauty everywhere, turning decaying Swansea into a beautiful playground of parks and rivers, abandoned industrial estates and carnivals, and vast, cold beaches and jetties.  And Oliver revels in this playground of a town, finding the isolation he needs for his mind to flourish, but ultimately, he finds that what he really needs is a girlfriend.

Oliver falls in love with Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige, looking a bit like a young, Welsh Julie Christie) and uses all of his book-learning and foreign-film watching to make her fall in love with him. Complications include his mate (Darren Evans in a near-Spud role), other school kids, his parents, and her parents – and, of course, his own inadequate emotional ability to handle all that is going on around him.  In other words, he’s still a kid.  Part of the meaning of the title is his father’s occupation (marine biologist) and a metaphorical connection between being underwater and depression.  Ultimately, though, Oliver is trying to live his life in retrospect, as a biopic about himself, and receives advice and reinforcement from adults around him on this point (“what will matter about today when you’re 38?”).

But, of course, no one can live their life in retrospect. Part of being alive is precisely not having perspective and being in the moment, living, loving, making mistakes, and trying to do what is right, while trying to balance that against the future.  Ultimately, this conflict is the key to understanding the emotional core of the film. However, when I left the theater, my emotions were wrapped up – completely held hostage by my opinion of Oliver’s response to the crisis he faced.  I left the film shaking my head – agonizing about this for a while, until I read an interview with Ayoade.  When asked why he did the film, Ayoade said it was because ultimately he did not agree with how Oliver responded to situations in his life.  I immediately found myself relieved of the burden of judging Oliver and finding him frustrating – the director did as well – and, now, in retrospect, I quite like the film.  At the same time, I can quite understand why someone would take issue with it.

One final note – the Alex Turner (Arctic Monkeys) soundtrack is fairly horrible. They could have done better in a thousand different ways, but I understand –  Ayoade did a video for the Monkeys a few years back, and what better way to ensure a bit of box office in the UK.  Still, of all the elements of this timeless, wonderful kitchen sink drama, the soundtrack probably will be the one that ages the worst.  And I’m not even going into the hypnotherapist neighbor’s (played like a deranged Dana Carvey by Paddy Considine) awesome painted custom van.