‘Submarine’ surfaces as a summer sleeper

Can a moody coming-of-age film set in a bleak small town in Wales, whose owlish male protagonist is partly inspired by Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle, possibly make a dent in a season slammed with big-budget sequels?

That is the question hovering over Submarine, an adaptation of Joe Dunthorne’s 2008 novel, as it dives into the competitive summer movie waters this Friday.

On the plus side: The story of Oliver — a precocious, socially inept 15-year-old who is determined to both lose his virginity and save the marriage of his melancholy parents — arrives bearing critical accolades gathered at the Toronto and Sundance film festivals.

Submarine also boasts Ben Stiller as an executive producer. How such a high-ranking Hollywood comedy czar climbed aboard Submarine is not entirely clear to director/writer Richard Ayoade, 33, a British sitcom star (The IT Crowd, The Mighty Boosh) also known for his music-video work with Vampire Weekend and Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

His best guess: “His production company somehow stumbled onto the script,” which might have been abetted by the fact that they are repped by the same agency.

For his part, Stiller — who has a small cameo as a TV soap actor — has publicly declared Ayoade “an annoyingly talented man.”

With its stylistic flourishes and mordant humor, Submarine has been favorably compared to such classics of the genre as Rushmore and Harold & Maude as Oliver (Craig Roberts, deeply odd yet endearing) attempts to woo eczema-stricken firebug Jordana (Yasmin Paige, mean-spirited and mischievous).

Ayoade, a fan of the French New Wave, rattles off an impressive film-schoolish mix of other influences as well. “The Graduate, definitely” — especially how Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin remains likable, despite lapses in judgment. “Louis Malle’s Zaziein the Metro. Forbidden Games. 400 Blows. Carol Reed’s Fallen Idol. The Squid and the Whale and The Spirit of the Beehive.”

But, strangely enough, he turned to Martin Scorsese’s disturbingly violent Taxi Driver as a blueprint on how to handle an unreliable narrator and his contradictory actions.

Comparing Oliver to Robert De Niro’s deluded cabbie, Ayoade says, “I always imagined him as somewhat psychopathic. We hear Travis Bickle’s opinion, then see (Cybill Shepherd’s) Betsy’s reaction to him from the back seat. That was key. There is a juxtaposition between what Oliver thinks of the world and what the world thinks of him.”

Submarine also adds its own unique spin on youthful misadventures. For instance, Oliver is very much a child of media saturation, regularly imagining that his life is being captured on film and even shooting his own Super-8 tribute to his romance with Jordana. Says Ayoade: “He is aware of the coming-of-age genre, the various tropes. But knowing these things doesn’t mean that they aren’t going to happen to you.”

Scenes of notes being passed in class, schoolyard bullies goading victims and awkward courtship rituals are to be expected. But Ayoade follows the novel’s lead and avoids pinpointing the exact decade that these events take place. The work attire worn by Oliver’s mom (Sally Hawkins) suggests the ’80s — and 1986’s Crocodile Dundee is mentioned — but the mullet-topped New Age guru next door who pursues her is very ’70s. The dial-up-era Internet exists. But nary a cellphone chirps.

Rushmore relied on a retro soundtrack that featured pop tunes from the ’60s by such acts as The Kinks, The Who, Cat Stevens and Chad & Jeremy. Submarine, however, eschews easy nostalgia for a sense of timelessness by employing six original ballads by Ayoade’s friend Alex Turner of the British indie rock band Arctic Monkeys, whose music videos he has directed.

“I didn’t want the songs to have an immediate response,” the filmmaker explains. “No baggage. Very often you hear a song and you know what it signifies. But unlike Max Fischer in Rushmore, who wears his heart on his sleeve, Oliver is a solitary character. I didn’t want to use any ’60s music or any music of that kind.”

As Submarine is about to take its maiden voyage in the States, Ayoade is already thinking about a new genre to explore. He suggests somewhat cheekily: “Women in prison films.” Jonathan Demme’s Caged Heat is already on his radar.