Brit TV actor Richard Ayoade makes his writer-director feature-film debut with Submarine—and it’s easily the most inventive filmmaking I’ve seen all year. It’s being promoted as something in the vein of Wes Anderson—think Rushmore set in Wales—and that’s not unreasonable, but it’s hardly the whole story. It’s as much unlike Anderson as it is like him. A better description—in terms of comparisons—would be that it’s like a Wes Anderson movie as if it was directed by Richard Lester in the 1960s with nods to Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967) and Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971). That’s nearer the mark, but by the time Ayoade is done, it’s really not quite like anything but itself. It’s also one of those rare movies that earns the term “quirky” instead of just grafting it on.
Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts, who bears a startling resemblance to the young Bud Cort) is the 15-year-old central character—and narrator—of the film, which he purports is his life story and, according to an introductory title, is “important.” Oliver lives in Wales with his supremely distracted and rather dull (the man is so mundane that he knows by heart the number to call to complain about potholes) marine biologist father Lloyd (Noah Taylor, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) and his vaguely discontented mother, Jill (Sally Hawkins). He’s concerned about his parents—especially the infrequency of their sex life, which gauges by where the dimmer switch on the overhead light in their bedroom is set—and becomes actively alarmed on the topic when his mother’s old boyfriend (and crackpot self-help guru) Graham Purvis (Paddy Considine) moves into the neighborhood.
His parents aren’t the only thing in his life, however. Oliver also wants a girlfriend, and has set his sights on Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige), a girl who is just odd enough that she might be in his league. (It helps that she’s not too pretty and prone to outbreaks of eczema.) Jordana is not, however, any kind of a pushover, nor is she the easiest person to deal with—having a string of dislikes (including romantic settings) that are, if anything, even odder than Oliver’s affectations. But Jordana has her own problems and issues, including a mother who may or may not be dying from a brain tumor.
That’s the situation in Submarine, but it conveys nothing of the way in which the plot is developed, nor the manner in which the characters reveal more about themselves as the film progresses. There has been some criticism of the film’s supposed affectations. In part, this seems to be a complaint that confuses affectation with stylization, but to accuse Oliver and Jordana of affectations is to completely miss the point. Of course they’re affected and striking poses. Isn’t this a major part of adolescence? Isn’t it a standard defense mechanism used to keep the world at arm’s length? After all, at that age, just about anything is better than letting the world know who you really are—or, worse yet, finding out yourself. The whole films is about that process—about the very serious way we try on various roles as masks to hide behind while trying to survive to adulthood.
It’s rare that we get good movies in 2011, but it’s even rarer that we get to see a debut work from anyone—in this or any other year—that’s as good as this one. See it. Rated R for language and some sexual content.