Submarine (United Kingdom/United States, 2010)

June 09, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Submarine Poster

Submarine arrives in the United States due in large part to the championing of Ben Stiller who, despite having only the briefest of cameos on-screen, leant his considerable star power to the film's marketing. It's one of those funny, charming coming-of-age stories that one might miss if making movie selections based on titles alone. This is not the sequel to Run Silent Run Deep or Das Boot. Instead, it's a deliciously amusing and sometimes surprisingly poignant look at the difficulties of being a 15-year old outsider whose chief goals in life are getting laid and making sure his parents don't split up. The setting is Wales during the mid-1980s, but the emotions and characters would be at home in any country in any year.

Many reviews have compared Submarine to Rushmore, with the obvious connection being that both movies focus on smart, socially awkward protagonists trying to find their way through the minefield of adolescence. Submarine, however, is more audience friendly than Wes Anderson's standoffish second feature, and it has a bigger heart. It effectively mixes cheeky comedy with dramatic elements; the end result feels a lot like Adventureland, not necessarily in terms of plot particulars but in terms of tone.

The U.S. cut opens with a funny "note" from Submarine's protagonist, Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), to the American audience, informing us that the events depicted in the film take place in Wales which is, among other things, not a country the United States has invaded. I'd reproduce the entire note here, but that would spoil the fun of discovery. Submarine is divided into five sections: a prologue, three main chapters, and an epilogue. The narrative becomes increasingly darker and more serious the deeper we get into the story, although it never loses its quirky, wisecracking edge. Events are true to the "teenage experience" (to the extent that any motion picture can be) until the epilogue, which owes more to Hollywood than reality.

If I was a girl, I don't think I would date Oliver. (Since I was more than a little like him at this age, this perhaps explains my lack of dating success during high school.) That's not to say he doesn't want to date; it's merely that the social climate doesn't favor him until an opening arises with Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige), a schoolmate who blackmails him into kissing her so she can snap Polaroids of their "tryst" to annoy her ex-boyfriend. After that, she decides she likes the idea of spending time with Oliver, and agrees to be his girlfriend with a few conditions, including that pet names and the expression of emotions are off-bounds. Kissing and sex, however, are allowed. Oliver's romantic life isn't the only thing that consumes his attention. His parents have entered a sexless phase of their marriage (he knows this because he charts the position of the dimmer switch in their bedroom, and it's never on a setting conducive to lovemaking). His mother, Jill (Sally Hawkins), is flirting with an old flame, self-help guru Graham Purvis (Paddy Considine). His father, Lloyd (Noah Taylor), looks on with emasculated disapproval.

The most appealing aspect of Submarine is Oliver's self-deprecating voiceover - arguably the most amusing narration since Christina Ricci's similar contribution to The Opposite of Sex. The dialogue is often witty, but it doesn't crackle with the kind of comedic energy that Craig Roberts brings to the running internal commentary. Writer/director Richard Ayoade, making his feature debut, nails a salient point about why it's so tough to stay grounded as a teenager: Oliver realizes that most of the "tragedies" of his life won't have meaning by the time he's 38, but that's scant comfort at the moment.

The two young stars of Submarine are familiar to viewers of British TV, where both have honed their talents. Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige are good, although Paige has a stronger screen presence than Roberts. Sally Hawkins gives a more low-key performance in Submarine than she has in her recent attention-getting efforts. Noah Taylor plays Lloyd with a degree of meekness that's frustrating. Strangely, despite living in the 1980s, Jill and Lloyd seem time-warped from the '50s or '60s. The one character who doesn't quite work is Graham, although this is more a function of the way he's written than of Paddy Considine's portrayal. It's unclear whether we're supposed to take Graham seriously or whether he's designed as part fatuous comic relief and part plot device. He doesn't come across as especially funny or sad, and one senses he should be one or the other (or both).

Coming-of-age stories arrive in all flavors, from the high minded to the lowbrow. Their charm lies not only in the narratives they weave but in the ways they touch common memories in those who view them. The voiceover narrative in Submarine gives us a window into Oliver's mind, and that amplifies the identification. The comedy keeps us from taking things too seriously and avoids a maudlin pitfall when things take an unfortunate turn. The overall experience isn't as transcendent as, say, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, but it offers a pleasing and worthwhile 90 minutes nonetheless.

Submarine (United Kingdom/United States, 2010)

Director: Richard Ayoade
Cast: Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Sally Hawkins, Noah Taylor, Paddy Considine
Screenplay: Richard Ayoade, based on the novel by Joe Dunthorne
Cinematography: Erik Wilson
Music: Andrew Hewitt
U.S. Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Run Time: 1:37
U.S. Release Date: 2011-06-10
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1