Why this film?: Because I didn’t want to watch a Mike Leigh film that featured Leslie Manville in an even more prominent role than it did Hawkins and had already seen Happy-Go-Lucky and Vera Drake. The crime thriller Layer Cake, where Hawkins plays a gangster’s girlfriend going by the name Slasher was the definite runner-up, but enough people said nice things about Submarine to make me track it down.
The review: Nothing makes you appreciate an auteur’s style like seeing them baldly imitated in another movie. In this case, the auteur is Wes Anderson, whose styles of framing, editing, mannered dialogue, and directing of actors are all co-opted by Richard Ayoade in his directorial debut. Submarine is the story of a high school boy who slowly molts parts of his affected exterior and delusions about those around him, encountering actual strife and becoming a better person because of it. Oliver Tate’s growth into a human person is a slight, familiar narrative that’s impressive to watch if only because he starts from such an unflatteringly low point that any improvement in his personality is welcome. A more interesting story, though not much more interesting, is watching Ayoade become more comfortable in shaping the film and watching his directorial mannerisms morph to eventually serve Submarine rather than impeding it. Ayoade is hopelessly in sync with his protagonist’s worldview, unironically and uncritically standing by an unbearable personality that starts of so repellent it’s almost a miracle that Submarine actually gets better as it goes, albeit in pretty small increments. The basic story structure of a high schooler realizing that the people around him are actually people is one too common and told too well before for Submarine to hold much value outside of how one shouldn’t make their movie.
It’s at least a blessing that the film starts with its worst sequences. Protagonist Oliver Tate is introduced through a monologue detailing his fantasy about what his funeral would look like on local and national levels before coming back as a Christ-like figure, a sequence that also introduces us to Ayoade’s painfully unironic and overbearing style as well as it demonstrates that Oliver is completely deluded and massively unpopular in school. The whole thing plays like someone transplanted one of the funeral or class mourning scenes from Heathers and didn’t recognize any of the bleakly comedic or performative aspects involved, with mostly female students wishing he was alive again so they could tell him all the sweet things they never said while he was alive. We then see him bullying an overweight girl named Zoe with his friends in order to impress another girl named Jordana romantically, who just so happens to be bullying Zoe with him. Zoe falls into a puddle, transfers schools, and Oliver sends her an envelope with instructions on how not to get bullied as an attempt to clear his own conscience.
All of this plays even worse than it sounds. There’s also the introduction of Oliver’s chilly and distant mother, his very meek father, and the motivational speaker hippy that moved in next door that’s also an ex of his mother’s. All of this sounds contrived and over familiar, with Ayoade’s filmmaking barely allowing his actors to contribute characterizations beyond the initial impression that we’re given of them. There’s no room for the performers to add any dimensions, almost to the point of intentionally inhibiting them. This applies most to Sally Hawkins as the distant mother, either by pure design or she’s contributing enough that we notice how much the camera and editing are refusing to let her actually act. Jane Eyrearguably gives her less screen time in total but does a better job at showcasing her playing a cold, matriarchal figure. She certainly creates a sturdier characterization than Noah Taylor as her genuinely dull husband or Paddy Considine as the outlandish neighbor Oliver keeps worrying his mother is having an affair with. Hawkins comes across as having mapped out her character but improperly presented by Ayoade in several scenes, while Yasmin Paige as Jordana and Craig Roberts as Oliver seem as though their performances improve once they’re given some room to breathe by the direction. Both actors improve once the character admit to themselves and each other that they really do care about each in other, meeting at Oliver’s house to have sex for the first time on a night he knows his parents won’t be home. Especially after so many scenes where the dynamic was Oliver pitifully pining and Jordana acting too cool for their relationship, it’s unexpectedly sweet to watch both characters, Jordana in particular, realize that their relationship means something to them, and equally unexpected that one partner sabotaging their relationship when it gets more serious than they expected is such a sad act of cowardice and regression into their former self.
None of this, however, ever makes Submarine a truly great or even an enjoyable experience. Compared to About Time, which sours a little by not giving its own concepts full consideration but is nonetheless a sweeping romance if you just run for it, Submarine is unoriginal as conceived and mostly unpleasant as executed, the saving grace being that it’s less unpleasant as it goes. Ayoade is about as in sync with his protagonist as Richard Curtis was, and he certainly displays more ideas about sound and imagery than Curtis’s rom-com naturalistic aesthetic would even allow for. A late film image of Oliver, completely shattered and riding his bicycle with fireworks bursting kaleidoscopically behind him, is genuinely impressive, and the film does improve slightly as it goes stylistically and narratively. The more human Oliver becomes, the more Ayoade’s filmmaking becomes approachable and seemingly worth taking interested in, even if it’s never entirely novel or utilizing the methods of artists he admires as well as other directors have done with their DVD collections. Frankly, the best things about Ayoade’s style relates to how well he’s able to insinuate some very Wes Anderson ideas about framing, editing, and sound into a completely mundane scenario. It’s always noticeable, sometimes to a distracting degree, but it’s an unusual match that’s rewarding to watch in the moments where story and style click together. If the film purposely lacks Anderson’s heightened colors, it still includes his storybook images, Ozu-esque habit of having characters stare into the camera to talk to each other, and depth of field. Narratively and aesthetically, Ayoade fully immersing his viewpoint into the mannerisms of his protagonist. It’s an admirable impulse to at least stick with Oliver instead of turning on him, but by stitching himself to a kid with absolutely no self-awareness Ayoade winds up having nothing to say about this incredibly unpleasant protagonist. It’s dangerously uncritical, unable to mine any comedy or pathos or even mockery out of his main character even with plenty of material to work with. More than that, he never even evinces an interiority in any character that isn’t Oliver, simultaneously leaving the actors to do all the work while hampering their ability to act so badly underneath the mannerisms of his own visual storytelling that we’re not able to get much out of them, regardless of how much they’re doing.
So, what does Submarine do that only it does, and does it do those things well? Originality feels like a tough claim for the film to make in any direction. Its idiosyncrasies are so blatantly borrowed without doing much to innovate them that it feels like a reminder to watch someone else’s movie rather than this one. The story is similarly familiar and without much resonance, plumbing almost nothing from its protagonist despite an incredibly uncomfortable closeness to him. There are an endless number of superior films that make us see the value in how a young person sees the world, though those films – like any good film – tend to integrate the perspectives of other characters while taking stock of the limitations or advantages of their protagonist’s way of thinking. If it’s one thing to grade Submarine as a “better” film than Dark Matter, it is certainly less ambitious or experimental than just about anything the latter film tries to accomplish regardless of how successful it ultimately is. If anything, Submarine is just barely better than Dark Matter is at telling an engaging story, growing more interesting in increments until, against all odds, it’s actually compelling to watch Oliver and Jordana try to reconcile on a beach after everything between them has happened. Still, it’s a slim payoff in a film whose most impressive quality is that it’s never as unpleasant to sit through as it is in its first twenty or so minutes, and if you’re looking for an ambitious directorial vision in portraying the life of a prickly young person and the people in their orbit, you have plenty of better options.