“Submarine,” the first feature film from English TV actor Richard Ayoade, reflects the influence of Gen X auteur Wes Anderson, with its quirky characters, episodic narrative style, and a stubborn and conspicuous refusal to engage with modernity.
The film charts the coming of age of a slightly neurotic and self-obsessed Welsh teenager, using many of the familiar signposts – virginity, divorce (or the threat thereof) and peer bullying. But Mr. Ayoade avoids the mawkishness characteristic of the genre by dwelling on the less likable aspects of his hero, young Oliver Tate.
We’re introduced to Oliver (Craig Roberts) as a somewhat lonely, somewhat disliked schoolboy. He is narrating a very funny daydream of his own death – the media attention, the candlelight vigil – imagining how people who bullied or ignored him would cherish his memory in death. At various points, Oliver bullies an overweight classmate to win favorable attention, eavesdrops on his mother’s phone conversations and contemplates the murder of a pet dog.
Oliver experiences reality through a kind of cinematic haze, imagining (out loud, in voice-over) what pieces of his life would look like on film. Oliver’s “direction” occasionally guides the camera – a cute conceit that intrudes on but doesn’t overwhelm the story. The reality of Oliver’s life is more mundane. The marriage of his parents Lloyd and Jill is falling apart from neglect and overfamiliarity – a disintegration his parents themselves view with disinterest. Oliver likes Jordana (Yasmin Paige), a girl in school, but is too shy to seek out her attentions in any normal way. His social standing could use a boost as well, but after some initial efforts in that direction, he seems to resign himself to a state of low-grade victimhood.
The action of the film is slight, with Oliver’s mental storyboarding consuming the most screen time. The twofold plot involves Oliver trying to thwart the attentions of his mother’s ex-boyfriend (an obtuse psychic with a razor-sharp mullet played with exquisite self-regard by Paddy Considine) while also weighing whether or not to involve himself in Jordana’s potentially tragic family life.
The events unfold in a picturesque Welsh village and its broken-down industrial environs, and are set in a kind of indeterminate, mashed-up era. A few cultural and technological signposts (a “Crocodile Dundee” reference, a reliance on VHS) put the action in the mid- to late-1980s, but there is also idiom, makeup and hairstyling that would suggest other time periods. Here, teens learn to kiss by awkwardly pressing their heads together, without the technique of today’s sex-savvy youth. Oliver and Jordana communicate in real life instead of texting and don’t broadcast their thoughts and monitor each other via social networks. What Mr. Ayoade is trying to achieve, I think, is a brand of cinematic innocence and simplicity that is one of the film’s enduring pleasures.