“What could be more cliche than thinking you aren’t one?,” a character says late in Submission, but by this point, the cliches have made themselves abundantly clear. Every narrative choice within Submission isn’t so much waiting for a surprise as it is wondering how the hell a film in 2018 could follow the exact path you’re expecting it to take every step of the way. If you think something is going to happen in Submission because you’ve seen it before in a million other films, guess what? You’re right. But eventually, that malaise and paint-by-numbers storytelling turns into a confused conclusion, taking an unusual stance on sexual harassment that plays antithetical to the #MeToo movement of today.
Stanley Tucci is Ted Swenson, a novelist whose first book was a mild success, but after years of trying, has yet to write his follow-up. While working on this second book, Ted has taken a job as a creative writing professor at a Vermont college, where he is secretly cynical and constantly disappointed in his students. Yet when the quiet Angela (Addison Timlin) submits her own writing to Ted, she shows promise that Ted hasn’t seen before in his class. She’s in love with Ted’s book, Phoenix Time, and hyperbolically compliments him as one of the greats. Of course, Ted is immediately curious about this student.
Angela’s book, entitled Eggs, is about a girl who has an affair with her teacher. The more Ted reads Eggs, the more it seems to mirror his own life and experiences. Even though he seems perfectly happy with his wife Sherrie (Kyra Sedgwick), Ted is interested in more than just Angela’s talent.
The build up to Ted and Angela’s eventual affair is lacking any sort of surprise, as it’s clear that these two are going to become more than the teacher-student relationship from the first time they speak in class. As straightforward as the screenplay often is – written by director Richard Levine – both Tucci and Timlin are solid, considering what they’re given. As Tucci’s opening narration points out, he’s a man who looks to have everything together on the outside, yet hides his true feelings and emotions on the inside. Meanwhile, it’s clear to the audience that Angela’s side of the relationship isn’t exactly pure – and obvious to anyone who gets even the slightest hint of it – but the layers that Timlin is working with and her true intentions that made Angela an engaging character.
Despite being one of the strongest parts of Submission, Ted’s life in the gray is also problematic. During a particularly tense dinner sequence, Ted seems to take a stand against sexual harassment allegations and states that students should have obscenities screamed at them to keep them from being soft.
Especially when Angela’s allegations of wrongdoings in their relationship come to light, Ted and the purpose of Submission becomes murky at best. Ted’s actions hint that either the film is raging against always believing the women in sexual assaults, or that these type of harassment claims can often be witch hunts against the accused. Since Submission is told solely from the viewpoint of Ted, even when his actions are obvious wrongdoings, his intentions in these moments are seen as valid. Yes, he’s made mistakes, but his heart was in the right place.
Submission lacks originality, or troublesome in its portrayal of sexual harassment, and its lack of understanding over what that even means. But maybe that is Levine’s point, as like Ted’s creative writing students apparently obsessed with stories of bestiality, it’s about the actions without any repercussions as to what such actions mean. Even if that is the case, Submission’s tricky subject matter just isn’t handled well by Levine’s screenplay, a bland mess that too often makes its points too overt. It’s not enough that Levine points out that Ted’s story is thematically similar to Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel – which Francine Prose’s original book was based on – he has to show the audience actual clips from the film that will remind of Ted’s story.
Submission is awkward and wishy-washy. With material this weak, its hard to demonize or admire any of the unique choices Levine does make, as Submission’s uninspiring discourse feels like Ted’s follow-up book: unfinished and disappointing.